In Our View: Protect Gray Matter

Paul Allen, president put research money behind understanding brain injury



Paul Allen is a smart man. He made billions of dollars using his brain as a co-founder of Microsoft, developing ways to make computers relevant for home use and everyday life. He since has ventured into many business arenas, not the least of which have been ownership of the Portland Trail Blazers and the Seattle Seahawks.

Now, at the same time he is paying football players big money to ram their heads into other football players, he is putting some of his money toward research into the effects of those repeated collisions. Allen announced last week that he has given $2.37 million toward the study of traumatic brain injuries and the long-lasting impact. The grant from the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation will go to the University of Washington and Allen’s own Allen Institute for Brain Science, allowing a team of Seattle-based researchers to study whether brain trauma and concussions are likely to lead to long-term afflictions such as Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s.

“Awareness of TBI has grown in recent years, but our understanding of what actually happens to the brain in the years following that type of injury is still a great mystery,” foundation vice president Susan M. Coliton said.

While the study will not be limited to football injuries, brain trauma has become one of the primary issues facing the sport — particularly at the professional level of the National Football League. Earlier this year, the NFL agreed to a $765 million settlement in a lawsuit brought by 4,500 former players who contend that the league covered up its knowledge of the effects of traumatic brain injury. And in recent years, former high-profile players Junior Seau and Dave Duerson committed suicide by shooting themselves in the chest so researchers could study their degenerative brain injuries.

This has helped bring public attention to the importance of brain study, but the movement has been growing for years in science circles. In April, President Obama announced the BRAIN Initiative, a $100 million project designed to “give scientists the tools they need to get a dynamic picture of the brain and better understand how we think, learn, and remember.” Obama said: “As humans, we can identify galaxies light years away and we can study particles smaller than an atom, but we still haven’t unlocked the mystery of the 3 pounds of matter that sits between our ears.”

Ah, but we have come a long way. In the fourth century B.C., according to Scientific American, “Aristotle believed the source of our consciousness was our heart, not our brain. In his view, the brain was an organ for venting excess heat, like a car radiator.” Aristotle was a fairly enlightened man for his time, but we’re pretty sure he was wrong about this one.

Ideally, the research fronted by Allen’s money will soon be applicable to many facets of society. For example, brain injuries are a common affliction for soldiers returning from war. And studying the long-term impact can help coaches and parents ensure that youth and high school football is as safe as possible for young players.

Most important, examining what happens when things go wrong with the brain can increase our understanding of all the things that go right. As Mark Fischetti wrote for Scientific American in 2011: “The incredibly efficient brain consumes less juice than a dim light bulb and fits nicely inside our head. Biology does a lot with a little: The human genome, which grows our body and directs us through years of complex life, requires less data than a laptop operating system.”

That is a marvel worthy of further study.