Singapore scientists part of ambitious project to map the human brain by 2024

Prof Kurt Wütrich, Nobel laureate, ETH Zurich, speaks at the inauguration of the Synchrotron for Neuroscience – Asia Pacific Strategic Enterprise. ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG
Representatives from six parties sign a Memorandum of Understanding to comprehensively map the brain. ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG

SINGAPORE - Over 1,000 scientists in the Asia-Pacific region are harnessing particle accelerators to look deep into the human brain. The ambitious effort has far-reaching implications, including unlocking more effective treatments for neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer's disease.

Using the extremely powerful x-rays generated by the massive machines, the scientists aim to produce a first-of-its-kind ultra-high resolution 3D comprehensive map of human brain at unprecedented speed.

Initiated by scientists from the National University of Singapore (NUS), the groundbreaking brain map project aims to be completed by 2024. This commitment was sealed in a memorandum of understanding signed earlier on Wednesday (Jan 15) by scientists from Singapore, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, and witnessed by guests that included Professor Kurt Wuthrich, the 2002 Nobel laureate in chemistry. Australia and China are expected to join in at a later date.

Their work will link the synchroton facilities in the Asia-Pacific region under a collaboration called Synapse (Synchroton for Neuroscience: an Asia-Pacific Strategic Enterprise).

The Singapore team will conduct its imaging work at the Singapore Synchrotron Light Source facility in NUS. Synchroton X-ray technology is not new - it is used in atmospheric research, plant imaging and pharmaceutical research, among others - but efforts to use it for mapping the human brain are only just emerging.

One yet-to-donated healthy human brain will be used, and each participating facility will work on a portion of that brain. The results will then be combined to get a picture of the whole brain.

This is a grand project that cannot be possibly undertaken by one institution, said Professor Barry Halliwell, the chairman of the Biomedical Research Council at A*Star Singapore. "In order to do it, you generate a massive amount of data and we have to pull together the supercomputing abilities from the countries involved."

Prof Low Chian Ming, the chairman of Synapse inauguration local organising committee, said that Synapse will use a unique imaging technology that can scan a bigger portion of the brain at a time, which speeds up the time taken to generate the brain connectome.

"Using other methods such as optical imaging, super-resolution microscopy, electron microscopy and so on to map the brain would take as long as the lifespan of an average person," he said.

The human brain is estimated to contain around 100 billion neurons, roughly the same number as there are stars in the Milky Way.

"Globally, brain mapping has gained impetus due to the growing impact of brain diseases. What we are setting out to do is a world-first enterprise. The images captured with unprecedented speed, clarity and granularity by Synapse will form an extensive human brain map," said Prof Low, who is from the NUS Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine's department of pharmacology and department of anaesthesia.

"They will show how neurons are connected and how they interact to result in cognition and intelligence. Our findings could potentially contribute to the effective treatment for increasing important neurodegenerative pathologies such as Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia."

Elsewhere, efforts to map the complex human brain have also been launched. In the United States, former president Barack Obama launched in 2013 the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative while Europe has the Human Brain Project.

Mapping the human brain is an effort akin to the 13-year Human Genome Project, a global, collaborative research programme whose goal was the complete mapping and understanding of all the genes of human beings. It was completed in 2003.

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