Allen Institute reorganizes brain science division, with added focus on neural computation

Alan Boyle
A sculpture titled “MIRALL” stands sentry at the Allen Institute’s headquarters in Seattle’s South Lake Union district. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

Seattle’s Allen Institute is heading into a new phase of research into neuroscience — a phase that includes reorganizing its current activities as well as adding new ones.

The Allen Institute for Brain Science, which is the largest division under the institute’s umbrella, was established by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen in 2003 and has continued on its mission since Allen’s death in 2018. It’s grown to more than 300 scientists and staff members who work in two broad research areas.

One program, known as Cell Types, focuses on mapping out a “periodic table” of brain cells. The Allen Institute’s new 16-year plan calls for the Allen Institute for Brain Science to focus solely on studying brain cell types and neural connectivity.

The second program, known as MindScope, seeks to understand how the brain’s neural circuits produce the sense of vision. That field of study, along with the Allen Brain Observatory, will transition out of the Allen Institute for Brain Science to become a separate program at the Allen Institute.

A new division, due for launch in 2022, will focus on research related to neural computation and dynamics.

Allan Jones, the Allen Institute’s president and CEO, said the organizational changes are in line with the vision laid out by Paul Allen.

“Our model has always been to find scientific problems where our particular flavor of big, team and open science can have the greatest impact,” Jones said in a news release. “As we shift into the next phase of our neuroscience research, I am confident that our teams will continue to push the boundaries of discovery and create invaluable resources for the community.”

Hongkui Zeng, who currently serves as executive director of structured science, will lead the institute’s research into brain cell types and connectivity as executive vice president and director of the Allen Institute for Brain Science.

“Our teams have made incredible progress in the past decade in our quest to identify the ‘parts lists’ of the mouse and human brains, and how these parts are connected into the ‘Google map’ of the brain,” Zeng said. “Information gained from these efforts opens up unprecedented opportunities for us to look deeper into how brain works. I’m excited to help bring our endeavor to the next level.”

Zeng is also the principal investigator on several large research projects and programs funded by the National Institutes of Health. She’ll continue to lead those projects in her new role.

Allan Jones (far left) is the Allen Institute’s president and CEO. Neuroscientists Hongkui Zeng and Christof Koch are moving into new roles at the institute. (Allen Institute Photos)

Christof Koch, who is currently president and chief scientist of the Allen Institute for Brain Science, will lead the MindScope program as its chief scientist. Koch and his colleagues have spent the past eight years building the tools, recording capabilities and data analysis pipelines for the Allen Brain Observatory, which uses the mouse visual system as a model for understanding how the brain stores, encodes and processes information.

He’ll continue to lead Allen Brain Observatory projects in his new role.

“We are now ready over the next five years to harvest the scientific insights into how the mouse cortex, 14 million complex neurons packed into the volume of a tenth of a sugar cube, represent and evaluate incoming visual information to rapidly and robustly control the behavior and the perception of the mouse,” Koch said.

Karel Svoboda is a neuroscientist at HHMI’s Janelia Research Campus. (HHMI Photo)

The new division on neural computation and dynamics will be headed by neuroscientist Karel Svoboda, who is currently a senior group leader at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Research Campus in Virginia. His lab studies synaptic plasticity, and develops new technologies and tools for unraveling the mysteries of cortical functions.

Svoboda will join the institute in 2021 to help lay the groundwork for the division’s launch. He has served as a member of the Allen Institute for Brain Science’s scientific advisory councils for the past 10 years.

“Over the years as a frequent visitor and advisor to the Allen Institute, I have grown to know and value its unique intellectual culture,” Svoboda said. “The Allen Institute has made extraordinary contributions to science and the world, and I’m so excited join this amazing community.”

In addition to the neuroscience groups, the Allen Institute has divisions that are devoted to cell science and immunology — plus the Paul G. Allen Frontiers Group, which provides funding for researchers working on cutting-edge bioscience.

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