Singapore scientists join international team to create ultra-high-resolution brain map

(PHOTO: NUS)

SINGAPORE — A group of Singapore scientists is partnering an international team to embark on creating an ultra-high-resolution 3D comprehensive map of the human brain.

Announced on Wednesday (15 January), the founding members of the initiative aim to complete the project by 2024. They signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) at the National University of Singapore (NUS) Shaw Foundation Alumni House Auditorium.

Synchrotrons – extremely powerful x-ray sources – will be used to trace the complex and intricate networks that cover the brain.

The collaboration, Synchrotron for Neuroscience – Asia Pacific Strategic Enterprise (SYNAPSE), will link the synchrotron facilities in Asia Pacific and is expected to involve more than 1,000 researchers. Each facility will work on a portion of the same brain.

Other team members include those from Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, with Australia and China expressing interest to be part of the project.

The Singapore team, comprising researchers from the local scientific community, will be led by Associate Professor Low Chian Ming from the NUS Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine’s Department of Pharmacology and Department of Anaesthesia, who is also a co-founding member of the international consortium.

By using synchrotron x-rays, the SYNAPSE partners will image the brain network on a scale of 0.3 micro-metres, with an image being taken at the speed of 1 cubic millimeter per minute.

The data acquisition and processing speed are more than 10 times faster than any other current method such as super-resolution microscopy or Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), according to Prof Low.

This will take the SYNAPSE group an estimated four years to map a human brain while other methods would take as long as the lifespan of an average person, he added.

This is set to complement the structural map constructed from x-ray imaging with subcellular and molecular information from other advanced imaging techniques such as infrared spectromicroscopy, super-resolution visible-light three-dimensional microscopy and cryo-electron tomography.

“This coordinated approach will provide ultra-small structural details of the entire brain, analogous to the detailed features of Google Earth images. By contrast, other current maps of the human brain only capture certain specific areas,” said the NUS.

The effort will help boost the understanding of the brain structure and identify the causes of brain diseases.

“(The images) will show how neurons are connected and how they interact to result in cognition and intelligence. Our findings could potentially contribute to effective treatment for increasingly important neurodegenerative pathologies such as Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia,” said Prof Low.

The SYNAPSE partners also signed a second MOU to implement a High-Performance Computing network for such data.

Singapore, which will leverage the petascale supercomputing resources at the National Supercomputing Centre (NSCC), is set to be the data hub of SYNAPSE.

The Singapore team will conduct its imaging work at the Singapore Synchrotron Light Source (SSLS) facility located in the NUS.

An international advisory board, including experts from neuropathology, electrophysiology, cell biological approaches, and imaging, has also been established to support SYNAPSE, the NUS added.

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