San Diego

Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen is contributing $100 million to jump-start an institute in Seattle, Washington, that will seek to unravel the genetics of the mammalian brain.

The initial project at the Allen Institute for Brain Science, which was due to be announced this week, will draw up a genetic 'brain atlas' of the mouse, as a model for studying the human brain in health and disease.

“What's exciting here is the scope of this project — to have the whole genetic map done under one set of quality controls,” says Larry Katz, a neuroscientist at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. “This will be something working neuroscientists can turn to on an ongoing basis.” Katz was among many leading neuroscientists who were tapped for advice during a two-year planning process initiated by Allen.

The institute will be a non-profit organization, and aims to attract more philanthropic contributions, as well as grants from federal agencies, to support its work. About 25 of the planned 75 scientific staff have already been hired.

The mouse brain atlas will map genes that are active in various parts of the brain, in a bid to gain information on the organ's development and the functions of its neurons. Institute planners say that this will help in understanding how genes influence human behaviour, as well as identifying targets for candidate drugs to treat neurological disease.

Although many neuroscientists are already studying the genetics of the central nervous system, the institute's backers say that this will be the first attempt to map the genetics of the entire mammalian brain. Up to two-thirds of the genes in both mice and humans are believed to play a crucial role in brain development and function.

Rather than pouring money into new buildings, the institute has leased premises in Seattle and will press straight ahead with its work. Allen “is interested in going forward quickly; he didn't want to wait to build a facility”, explains Mark Boguski, who will direct the brain-atlas project. Boguski is a bioinformatics expert and an original member of the National Center for Biotechnology Information.

The institute's first maps are expected to be made publicly available early next year, its managers say, with the mouse brain atlas set for completion in 2006.