Officially announced Thursday, the idea originated last year when Allen met with NFL concussion expert Dr. Richard Ellenbogen, who is based at the University of Washington.
That conversation led to a Seattle-based collaboration launched Thursday -- and bankrolled by Allen's foundation -- to study the way blows to the head can damage the brain. Among the questions the scientists hope to answer is whether even mild concussions early in life can lead to dementia decades later.
"I think we can answer some of these questions better than anybody else in the world because of the resources we have," said Dr. Eric Larson, vice president of research for Group Health, which is involved in the study.
The result will be a a two-year, $2.4 million study by scientists at the Allen Institute for Brain Science and the University of Washington in Seattle.
Allen is best known as the co-founder of Microsoft and also owns the NBA Portland Trail Blazers as well as part of the MLS Seattle Sounders. His fascination with neuroscience has helped to fuel the research project.
Allen, who has a longstanding fascination with neuroscience, is concerned about the long-term effects of traumatic-brain injuries, said Kathy Richmond, science officer for the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation.
As the NFL's richest owner -- and the only one with his own brain-research lab -- Allen also has the means and inclination to help tackle the problem scientifically.
"He recognized the importance of this, and how many outstanding questions there are," said Richmond. "He's interested in getting to those answers, no matter what they are."
The key to the project is the brain bank that Group Health owns. It includes 500 brains donated over 25 years, a number that is estimated to be the biggest in the world to draw from the general population.
And nearly 1 in 5 donors suffered some type of head trauma during their lives, as a result of everything from falls and car accidents to combat-related blast injuries.
During the two-year, $2.4 million study, scientists at the UW and the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle will examine the brains at the structural, cellular and molecular levels, looking for changes related to traumatic-brain injury.
Because of the detailed health records on file for each patient, the researchers should be able to draw correlations between head injuries and later health problems, including Alzheimer's disease.
"If I get in a car accident in my 20s, does that mean I'm going to get dementia in my 70s?" asked Ellenbogen, chairman of the UW Department of Neurosurgery. "Right now, we don't know."
The research might also reveal whether some people are more vulnerable to brain injury than others, because of their genes, Ellenbogen added.
-- Bill Bradley, contributing editor