After years crammed into four buildings, the Allen Institute for Brain Science is opening a new Seattle headquarters intended to help expand and accelerate its work.

Share story

Modern brain science is a high-tech enterprise.

Using fluorescent chemicals and genetic tags, researchers can track thought patterns as they flash through the brains of living animals. Specialized machines shave tissue into slices a hundred times thinner than a human hair, while electron microscopes reveal details down to the molecular level.

But it’s challenging to deploy that experimental firepower — and the computing capacity to handle the resulting deluge of data — in traditional laboratories.

Since its founding more than a decade ago, the Allen Institute for Brain Science has cobbled together facilities in four separate buildings, from Fremont to the fringe of downtown Seattle.

On Tuesday, the institute celebrates the opening of its new headquarters building in the bustling South Lake Union neighborhood. All 300 employees and their gear will be housed together, with room to grow and expand their unique brand of industrial-scale research.

The 270,000-square-foot building, which covers an entire block at the intersection of Mercer Street and Westlake Avenue North, will allow the institute’s staff to nearly double over the next five years, said CEO Allan Jones.

Where the old labs had space for only two electron microscopes, the new building will hold eight. The institute will now be able to triple its capacity to record electrical impulses from individual brain cells, expanding from four sets of experimental apparatus to a dozen.

The building also aims to maximize the brain power and creativity of its human resources by creating an environment that encourages random encounters and impromptu discussions, Jones said during a tour last week.

Most Read Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks

“It’s all about mixing,” he said.

The central atrium is open and bright, with labs and workspaces arrayed around it like petals on a flower. Glass-walled cubbyholes and scattered seating arrangements — with whiteboards close at hand — encourage people to gather in small groups and brainstorm.

In common workspaces, computer modelers and lab technicians will sit side by side with neuroscientists and graphic-image gurus. Managers get private offices, but all are the same size and none have views.

“No one has a smaller office than the CEO,” Jones said. The expansive vistas onto Lake Union are reserved for the dining hall, conference rooms and labs.

The design also pays homage to the 1920s-era Ford McKay and Pacific McKay buildings that occupied the block for eight decades and were part of Seattle’s original “auto row.” The terra-cotta facades and stylish showroom were re-created and incorporated into the modern structure.

The $200 million building was paid for by Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist Paul Allen, who founded the institute and has committed $1 billion to its operations and facilities.

The building will also house the Allen Institute for Cell Science, founded last year with an initial $100 million gift.

The brain institute aims to accelerate research on the body’s most complex organ and tackle neurological disorders like Alzheimer’s disease and schizophrenia. But unlike academic labs, where individual researchers or small teams toil in isolation, the institute operates on a grand scale that will be amplified by the new facilities.

The first major project was a detailed atlas of the mouse brain, based on an assembly-line process that analyzed 21,000 genes in 16,000 tissue slices every week. An ongoing project relies on an unprecedented array of six instruments called two-photon microscopes to spy on the brains of living mice tagged with fluorescent dyes that glow as neurons fire.

“It allows us to start identifying the function of specific cells, and that’s so much more powerful than just looking at a static image,” said structured science director Amy Bernard. All of the data are standardized and freely accessible to scientists around the world.

“We’re really focused on making our systems as robust and as identical as possible so we can industrialize that data generation,” Bernard said.

The lure of cutting-edge facilities and generous funding has attracted several neuroscience luminaries in recent years, including Stephen Smith, formerly of Stanford University.

The Allen Institute is also one of the only places in the world where scientists can regularly work with fresh, human brain tissue, Smith pointed out. The small bits are donated by local patients who undergo surgery, usually to remove tumors.

Researchers are able to probe the tissue while neurons are still firing. Then Smith uses an imaging method he developed to zoom in on the synapses through which brain cells communicate with each other.

“Right now, the sky is the limit,” Smith said. “We have this huge armamentarium of experimental tools based on genetics … and we can use those things in humans, and this is just blowing peoples’ minds.”