New Institutes for Brain Science

  • Medicine & Health
  • 2003

In recent years, brain research has been a rising interest among philanthropists. For instance, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen donated $200 million in 2003 to establish a Seattle-based nonprofit aimed at accelerating understanding of the human brain and its diseases. Among other projects, the Allen Institute for Brain Science produced interactive atlases of the mouse brain and the human brain, which have become staple tools for scientists worldwide.

In 2012, Allen pledged an additional $300 million to the institute, allowing it to increase its staff to 350 employees and to undertake deeper studies in three areas: how the brain processes information; what the basic structures of brain function are; and what goes wrong in brain cells to create neurological disorders. Freed of the need to repeatedly apply for federal grants, and working in teams more like an Internet firm or corporate lab, Institute researchers have made rapid progress in their chosen fields. When the federal government launched a $100 million human-brain initiative in 2013, Allen Institute researchers provided shape to the plan.

In 2017, Paul Allen funded a new center focused specifically on understanding how the human brain developed so fast and so far over the last 50,000 years. This new effort, based at Boston Children’s Hospital, was launched with a $10 million grant, expandable to $30 million as it yields fruit. Identifying genes crucial to our brain evolution will be a particular goal.

Other donors have also made important contributions to neurological research. Patrick and Lore McGovern made one of the largest philanthropic gifts to a university when they donated $350 million to MIT in 2000 for creation of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research. Inventor Fred Kavli funded brain institutes at Columbia, Yale, Johns Hopkins, Rockefeller University, and the University of California. In 2013, property developer Mortimer Zuckerman donated $200 million to Columbia University to endow a new neuroscience institute whose “mission is both greater understanding of the human condition and the discovery of new cures for human suffering.” The innovative Center for Brain Health of the University of Texas at Dallas has been built up with broad philanthropic support since its founding in 1999.

In 2015 the O’Donnell Foundation pledged $36 million to start a new Brain Institute at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. The same year, venture capitalist Mark Stevens donated $50 million to create a brain center at USC, and Atlantic Philanthropies gave $177 million to establish a dementia-research project run jointly by Trinity College in Ireland and U.C. San Francisco. In 2016, new neuroscience institutes were established at U.C. San Francisco with a $185 gift from Sanford Weill, and at Caltech with a $115 million pledge from a Singaporean couple. Both will mix experts from medicine, biology, engineering, chemistry, computer science, and other fields to understand brain functions outside of typical academic boundaries.

The Brain & Behavior Research Foundation is another philanthropically funded organization that has dramatically advanced neurology and psychiatry. In 1987, the group began offering grants and prizes to young researchers in the brain sciences. By directing more than $300 million to 3,300 scientists, the organization has become not only the world’s leading private funder of mental-health research, but an important spur to innovation in the field—particularly by encouraging promising young investigators with its research grants, and recognizing neurological breakthroughs with its five lifetime-achievement prizes.