Microsoft Co-Founder Paul Allen's Health Philanthropy
Image: Rick Dahms for Forbes
ehind a black curtain in a small room, a titanium sapphire laser is prepared to fire at a tiny and very surprising target: A half-centimetre glass window surgically implanted into the skull of a live mouse. If all goes right the laser will fire for a quadrillionth of a second while the mouse runs on a white, treadmill-like ball and watches a computer screen. Thanks to special dyes, certain brain cells will glow green if the mouse is using them, their image captured by cameras capable of detecting a single photon.
The point to all this Star Trek-style technology could not be more profound. That tiny tangle of tissue in the mouse’s skull turns nerve impulses from the rodent’s eyes into an interaction. Decoding that process would give scientists the first true window into how a mammalian brain experiences the world.
It has a secondary benefit, too. Looking over the contraption puts a big—and pretty rare—smile on the face of Paul Allen, the 59-year-old Microsoft co-founder who has plowed $500 million into the Allen Institute for Brain Science, a medical Manhattan Project that he hopes will dwarf his contribution as one of the founding fathers of software. The institute, scattered through three buildings in Seattle’s hip Fremont neighbourhood, is primarily focussed on creating tools, such as the mouse laser, which is technically a new type of microscope, that will allow scientists to understand how the soft, fleshy matter inside the human skull can give rise to the wondrous, mysterious creative power of the human mind.
“As an ex-programmer, I’m still just curious about how the brain functions, how that flow of information really happens,” says Allen in a rare interview, in a conference room overlooking an active ship canal.
“The thing you realise when you get into studying neuroscience, even a little bit, is that everything is connected to everything else. So it’s as if the brain is trying to use everything at its disposal—what it is seeing, what it is hearing, what is the temperature, past experience. It’s using all of this to try to compute what the animal should do next, whether that animal is a mouse or a human being.”
It’s heavy stuff, fuelled by curiosity and scientific ambition, made yet weightier by issues of mortality and the neuro fragility Allen’s own brain has been coping with. In June, his mother, Faye Allen, a schoolteacher who inculcated him with a love of books and knowledge, died of Alzheimer’s. “Any time you’ve seen a loved one…,” Allen says, trailing off. “You see their personality, everything that makes them human, slowly slipping away, and there is nothing you can do about it.” And Allen himself has waged a fight against stage four non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a deadly blood cancer that is now in remission. He is flush and energetic, juggling our interview with phone calls about one of his sports teams, and filled with urgency about his legacy.
His first $100 million investment in the Allen Institute resulted in a gigantic computer map of how genes work in the brains of mice, a tool that other scientists have used to pinpoint genes that may play a role in multiple sclerosis, memory and eating disorders in people. Another $100 million went to creating a similar map of the human brain, already resulting in new theories about how the brain works, as well as maps of the developing mouse brain and mouse spinal cord. These have become essential tools for neuroscientists everywhere.
Now Allen, the 20th-richest man in America, with an estimated net worth of $15 billion, has committed another $300 million for projects that will make his institute more than just a maker of tools for other scientists, hiring several of the top minds in neuroscience to spearhead them. One effort will try to understand the mouse visual cortex as a way to understand how nerve cells work in brains in general. Other projects aim to isolate all the kinds of cells in the brain and use stem cells to learn how they develop. Scientists think there may be 1,000 of these basic building blocks, but they don’t even know that. “In software,” Allen says, “we call it reverse engineering.”
The willingness to fund these projects has gained Allen a growing number of disciples. “Paul has become a hero to me,” says David Anderson, a professor at Caltech who first proposed the mouse map project to Allen. “He’s done something for science in a way that very few other philanthropists have. It required that he have faith in science and go where his curiosity guides him.”