Microsoft Co-Founder Gives $300 Million To Build 'Brain Observatories'
A new project that aims to probe mouse brains to learn how the rodents see has been awarded $300 million by Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen.
The money will help fund the first three years of the estimated 10-year project. Discoveries from the undertaking could help revolutionize our understanding of the mammalian brain, including our own, researchers said.
"I'm interested in the neural basis of consciousness, and I think consciousness in us and the mouse is related — not the same, but related," neuroscientist Christof Koch, chief scientific officer at the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle, told InnovationNewsDaily. "If we hope to understand the ancient mind-body problem, the relationship between the mind and the body — looking at simpler creatures is the only way to do so."
Why map a rodent brain instead of the human brain? It should prove much easier, given how the minds of mice are obviously less complex than that of humans. For example, a mouse brain is 0.5 grams, a human brain 3,000 times that; a mouse brain has 70 million neurons, a human brain 86 billion. Despite the differences, lessons from the mouse brain should yield insights on the human brain, researchers noted.
"There might be on the order of 1,000 different cell types in the brain," Koch said. "For a number of reasons, we can't examine these basic building blocks in humans, but after we develop the techniques to understand them in the mice, we can take them to humans."
The researchers at the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle are concentrating on the mouse visual cortex, which makes up about 10 percent of the rodent's cerebral cortex, the "gray matter" that makes up the outermost part of the brain and is the seat of intelligence in mammals. The mouse visual cortex consists of 1 million to 2 million neurons.
The goal of the scientists is to combine everything scientists know about the mouse – from its physiology down to the level of its genome – with computer models of its brain to create a comprehensive theory of how the rodent uses its cortex to see. All data and other resources they create, such as genetically engineered mice, will be shared for free.
The project will start with the anatomy of neurons in the cortex, counting and cataloging the diverse array of cells that transmit information into and out of the visual cortex as well as those found only within the cortex. They will go on to measure the activity between many of those neurons to see how the cortex "sees" given its structure — neurons can now be engineered to give off light when they are active, or even get controlled with light, helping scientists tease apart the circuitry of the brain. All of this data will then get synthesized into computer models that build theories of how the visual cortex behaves.
"We're peering into the brain to read the mind of the mouse in a very quantitative way," Koch said.
Although this project will explore vision, it should also touch upon a number of fundamental aspects of higher brain function, such as perception, conscious awareness and decision-making, and how they lead to action. Understanding the basic mechanisms of these processes in mice could help shed light on more complex forms of perception in humans and other animals, as well as disorders of the brain.
"Ultimately, if we want to understand the diseases our mind is prey to — schizophrenia, autism, depression, Alzheimer's — the only way to really cure them is to really understand the brain," Koch said. "You wouldn't try to fix a car if you did not know how a car works."
The researchers do note that other brain mapping projects exist. For instance, the European Human Brain Project hopes to create working computer models of the mouse, rat, monkey and human brains. The "brain observatories" program at the Allen Institute differs in that they are focusing on a single sense in a single species.
"The brain for its size is by far the most complex system in the known universe, and every time we look at it, the more details we see, the more wiring, the more cell types," Koch said. "Our understanding of the brain is still very primitive, so the only way to make proper sense is to focus on only one system of it in one species. Even then, it's very challenging."
The biggest challenge Koch sees the research facing is teamwork. "We have physicists, neuroanatomists, physiologists and many others — it's a large-scale team effort," Koch said. "We'll have to develop a common standard, a common language, something that hasn't happened in neuroscience yet at this level."
The scientists discussed the project in the March 22 issue of the journal Nature.