WASHINGTON—He's the fifth-richest man in America, worth $16 billion. He owns two professional sports teams, football's Seattle Seahawks and basketball's Portland Trailblazers. He's a real estate developer, philanthropist, venture capitalist and the lead guitarist in the rock band Grown Men.
And now, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen has a Web-based, three-dimensional atlas named for him, one that maps the genes in a mouse brain. The Allen Brain Atlas, unveiled Tuesday, may have life-changing implications for humans as scientists search for cures to such brain disorders as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, epilepsy, schizophrenia, autism and even depression and addiction.
Humans and mice have in common more than 90 percent of their genes; the atlas represents a significant step in understanding the human brain, scientists say. Ultimately, they say, the atlas may also help unlock the mysteries of how people think, see, feel, hurt and experience other emotions and sensations that fly around the 1 quadrillion communications points in the brain.
"It's a touchstone for everyone working on the brain," Allen said. "There is an opportunity to by the end of the century have a better understanding of the brain, its diseases and how to cure them."
Allen established an institute for brain science in Seattle and provided $100 million in seed money as researchers embarked on a three-year quest to map the 21,000 active genes in a mouse brain. The genes were detected in various sections of the brain, filled with a photogenic substance and then photographed by automated microscopes and uploaded into a computer.
The atlas shows a map of active genes in the brain, which in turn provides links to specific brain functions.
More than 85 million images were captured; the 600 terabytes of information in the on-line atlas could fill 20,000 I-Pods. The atlas is available at www.brain-map.org.
The atlas already has attracted attention from scientists worldwide, with the site receiving more than 4 million hits a month and about 250 scientists accessing the site daily.
"This has exceeded my wildest dreams," said David Anderson, a biology professor at the California Institute of Technology and a member of the scientific advisory board for the Allen Institute for Brain Science.
Anderson likened having the brain atlas to flying above the Earth at 30,000 feet, looking down and being able to see all the underground deposits of gold, silver, platinum and other minerals without having to do any actual prospecting.
Researchers who have connected a specific gene to a mental disorder like schizophrenia can look at the atlas and learn where those genes are in the brain, he said. The atlas may help identify so-called stem cells in the brain that might be activated to repair brain damage. It also may help to identify where genes important to learning are concentrated, Anderson said.
"This is an invaluable addition to brain science, and now it is up to us to mine it," Anderson said.
Roughly one-fourth of American adults, or 58 million people, suffer from a diagnosable brain disorder in a given year. About 4.5 million have Alzheimer's; autism is the fastest growing developmental disability in the nation; 2.7 million have epileptic seizures; schizophrenia affects 2.2 million people, and 1 percent of Americans over 65 have been diagnosed with Parkinson's.
"Many of us are touched by someone with a brain disorder," Allen said. "This is something all of us need to care about."
Allen, Anderson and others attended a news conference on Capitol Hill to announce the completion of the atlas.
Calling the atlas "industrial grade science," Allen cautioned in an interview that the public shouldn't expect any immediate scientific miracles. Instead, he said, scientists now have a fundamental tool to further their research.
"It's a step in the direction of curing these diseases, a tool researchers can use that will hopefully lead to treatments," he said.
"Computers are simple," Allen said. "Brains are far more complex."
The atlas was put together without federal funding. But lawmakers were well aware of the program, and two of them—Washington Democratic Sen. Patty Murray and Alaska Republican Sen. Ted Stevens—attended the news conference.
Murray said she was especially interested because the atlas could help in developing treatments for the severe brain injuries suffered by soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. She suggested a public-private partnership might be formed to build on the atlas.
"As we have seen so many times before, one medical breakthrough leads to another," Murray said. "As we learn more about the human brain, I hope that our understanding of brain trauma and brain injuries will increase."
Stevens called the development of the atlas an "unprecedented effort. The atlas is a tremendous step forward in brain research."
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
Need to map