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Experimental feature

One day in 1952, a teenage Patrick McGovern borrowed a book from his local Philadelphia library and became consumed by a single idea. The book was Edmund Berkeley’s Giant Brains: or Machines That Think. The idea was that the human brain was a sort of machine and that, if its various parts were understood, it could be made to function better.

A few years later, McGovern won a scholarship to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and was intent on dedicating his life to the study of the brain. But soon after he arrived on campus, that boyhood enthusiasm ran into a frustrating reality.

“I quickly realised that …the complexity of the brain was much more than could be analysed by computers back then,” McGovern recalls.

So, while waiting for technology to advance, McGovern embarked on another career, that of media mogul. In 1967 he founded the magazine, Computerworld, one of the first publications to document the burgeoning computer industry. It is now the flagship for International Data Group, a Boston-based company that publishes more than 300 magazines, employs more than 14,000 people and last year generated $2.84bn in revenue.

But as IDG grew, swelling McGovern’s personal fortune, he never lost his love for neuroscience. And in the late 1990s, after taking stock of advances in computer processing and imaging technology, McGovern and his wife, Lore, a computer entrepreneur, saw an opportunity to pursue that passion.

They convened half a dozen Nobel laureates and began to hatch plans for a foundation dedicated to unlocking the mysteries of the brain. The result was a $350m gift to MIT, the school’s largest ever, to establish the McGovern Institute for Brain Research.

The Cambridge facility is housed in an elegant limestone and glass building that opened its doors in 2005. As well as laboratories and microscopes, Charles Correa, a Bombay architect, included tearooms and other casual spaces where an assortment of physicists, neuroscientists, nanotechnologists, geneticists and other brainiacs can come together to swap ideas. It was that multidisciplinary approach that led McGovern to choose MIT, he says.

Now he is planning to spend $800m more to create two companion centres – one in Europe and one in Asia – to be linked to MIT by a high-speed internet connection. The heady goal is to document how billions of discrete neurons and connections in the brain give rise to thought, dreams and emotion, and make sense of the breakdowns that cause memory lapses, drug addiction and mental illness.

“It’s like a dream,” McGovern said of the institute. “I kept wondering whether this dream was ever going to be fulfilled.”

McGovern is not the only technology billionaire to dedicate a fortune to the brain. Paul Allen, the Microsoft co-founder, donated $100m to establish the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle. And Jeff Hawkins used his fortune from Palm Computing, creator of the Palm Pilot, to set up the Redwood Neurosciences Institute at the University of California, Berkeley.

All these efforts are inspired by a gadget geek’s confidence that the most personal and complex organ is, in essence, a fancy computer. Or, as McGovern puts it: “The brain is just a collection of circuit elements. So why couldn’t we make them faster or more reliable?”

Brain charities have not always been an easy sell. Previous generations of philanthropists have been inclined to give money to try to cure specific diseases that might have stricken friends or relatives. Many long assumed that mental illness was purely a spiritual matter and that the brain itself was beyond practical study.

While technology millionaires may bring deep pockets and intellectual confidence, they do not always make ideal benefactors, according to Charles Jennings, director of the McGovern Institute neurotechnology programme. Some are convinced they know better than the experts and may insist on funding pet projects that are less than scientific. “Usually, we just give them an MRI and get rid of them,” Jennings, an Englishman, jokes.

For the McGoverns, though, he offers nothing but praise. “They are motivated not only by curiosity but also by a belief that brain research will have profound implications for society,” he says.

By all accounts, McGovern cuts a modest figure. He is softly spoken and there are no massive portraits or bronze busts commemorating the McGovern Institute’s namesake. “He came from nothing,” said George Green, president of Hearst Magazines International and a long-time friend. “You want to talk about the all-American success story, he is it.”

Visitors to the McGovern Institute expecting to find a Frankenstein collection of brains in formaldehyde will be disappointed. The main attraction is a new generation of magnetic resonance imaging machines, so powerful that Robert Desimone, institute director, has likened their impact to that of the telescope on astronomy.

The magnetic power of the doughnut-shaped machines is measured in teslas, and the rule of thumb is that each tesla costs $1m. While the typical hospital-strength magnet used on human beings measures about 1.5 teslas, the McGovern Institute has rigged a 9.4 tesla contraption for rats. It is the difference, researchers say, between being able to look up and see it is raining, and getting a satellite picture of an entire weather system.

“We’re starting to really get to see the physical basis for why schizophrenics hear voices,” McGovern explains.

With luck the institute’s research may one day contribute to treatments for that and other ailments, such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s disease and autism. McGovern, though, has a broader application in mind: he is curious whether prejudice and distrust of others can become hard-wired into the human brain.

If McGovern’s hunch is correct, there may be neurological factors prolonging conflicts all round the world. It may even turn out that George W. Bush was hostage to his pre-frontal cortex when he insisted Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction and took America to war.

The President seems unlikely to submit to a brain scan – at least for another 18 months. McGovern, though, would love the possibility. One of his favourite pastimes is to encourage all sorts of people – including faculty, staff and interested visitors – to climb into the MRI machine and have their brains scanned.

These informal MRIs have given scientific validation to what was long conventional wisdom about MIT types. “They’re not terribly high on sociability,” says McGovern.

Yet McGovern has another purpose in mind: by giving people a peek inside their own heads, he is prompting the realisation that the brain is not an unknowable mystery but an organ with characteristics that can be studied and understood and perhaps – one day – improved.

“Today, all the evidence says that the physical brain is the seed of all we experience – our mind and consciousness,” McGovern says. “It took people a while to accept that.”

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