Bezos and the Brain

What is it about billionaires and the brain?

Unravelling the secrets of neuroscience has emerged as a major focus of a number of wealthy givers and, a few months ago, Jeff Bezos (Jeff Bezos' IP profile) joined this crowd. Bezos and his wife, MacKenzie Bezos, pledged $15 million last December to Princeton University to establish the Bezos Center for Neural Circuit Dynamics in the university's Neuroscience Institute.

According to the Seattle Times,

The center, expected to be open in summer 2013, will study how decisions are made or memories recalled, look for treatments for neurological disorders and investigate how children can learn more effectively. David Tank, co-director of the Princeton Neuroscience Institute, will lead it.

Of course, $15 million doesn't really buy much of a center at a place like Princeton, so it's probably best to see this gift as a down payment on a bigger stream of money that the Bezos family is likely to give to Princeton. Jeff and MacKenzie Bezos are both alums of Princeton. (Which makes it a very lucky university, as Forbes pegs Bezos' fortune at around $18 billion.)

Bezos is not new to funding neuroscience. The Bezos Family Foundation, which is run by his parents, Mike and Jackie Bezos, made a $5 million challenge grant in 2010 to the Institute of Learning and Brain Science at the University of Washington.

But why neuroscience? Well, obviously Bezos is interested in science broadly, given that he majored in electrical engineering and computer science at Princeton and, at Amazon, has worked on the frontiers of the Internet. (See Fundraising for Brain Research). In high school, Bezos was fascinated by space exploration and wanted to grow up to be a space entrepreneur, according to a profile in Wired. When he started at Princeton, he initially wanted to be a theoretical physicist. So it's not surprising that he might choose science as a focal point for his philanthropy given this background.

In a statement about his gift, Bezos said that:

Professor Tank and his colleagues are on an epic quest to unravel one of humankind's greatest challenges — understanding the brain. New tools and techniques are making possible discoveries that would have been unthinkable just two decades ago. We can hope for advancements that lead to understanding deep behaviors, more effective learning methods for young children, and cures for neurological diseases. MacKenzie and I are delighted and excited to support Princeton in their focus on fundamental neuroscience.

Okay, fair enough. Big questions to be answered here, and brain research is clearly one of the great scientific frontiers of the 21st century. But there are other frontiers, too. So why this one?

Bezos hasn't said much about his gift beyond the canned statement, and neither has MacKenzie. Clearly, though, there's a sense among a number of philanthropists — not just Bezos — that there exist big opportunities for breakthroughs in neuroscience.

Hedge fund billionaire Stanley Druckenmiller, along with his wife Fiona Druckenmiller, gave $146 million to New York University's Langone Medical Center in 2009 to create a neuroscience institute. In a statement about the gift, Fiona Druckenmiller explained their interest in both humanitarian terms and in terms of scientific exploration:

Every family is affected in one way or another by brain disorders or brain aging. An aging brain can lead to problems with memory, learning, sleep, feelings of well-being, not to mention all the ways the brain mediates other aspects of health. The brain is one of the last great frontiers in medicine and advances in related research could help both the individual and society function at a higher level.

Put this way, it's easy to see why billionaires would be interested in neuroscience. Another funder in this area is hedge fund billionaire James Simons. Some of the $150 million that James and Marilyn Simons gave to SUNY Stony Brook in December 2011 will go to create a new Neurosciences Institute and a Center for Biological Imaging.

So Jeff and MacKenzie Bezos are in good company. There is a lot of big money funding research in neuroscience. And plenty more where that came from.