China set to ‘industrialise’ brain mapping
High volume, high throughput and high-speed mapping of the brain
Brain mapping projects have been around for a while and new global initiatives are seen as a way to take these ideas to a new level. Indeed, at a United Nations’ General Assembly meeting in New York City in 2016, Thomas Shannon, the US Under Secretary of State, launched the Worldwide brain mapping project. This was seen as an opportunity to create an ‘International Brain station’ where data could be automatically converted into standardised formats and therefore enable the wider scientific community to access and analyse large datasets. One of the barriers to entry was that each participating country was expected to contribute US$300 million, which is an enormous amount of money especially if they have conflicting research priorities and strategies.
On August 17th, Nature reported an article entitled ‘China launches imaging factory.’ The initiative has a 5 year budget of 450 million yuan (US$67 million) and will employ around 120 scientists and technicians at the Huazhong University of Science and Technology (HUST) in Wuhan, China. The objectives of this brain mapping project are to provide a large-scale, high-speed and standardized approach to data generation. All conducted in a newly built facility housing 50 automated machines that can shave a brain into ultrathin slices, take a high-definition picture of the slide and then reconstruct the pictures to create a three-dimensional image of the brain.
“Large-scale, standardized data generation in an industrial manner will change the way neuroscience is done” (Hongkui Zeng from the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle, Washington, USA) .
A new solution for an old problem
The challenge of mapping mammalian brains is well-known to neuroscientists. This method of mapping requires it to be sliced into slices of a few hundreds of microns each – in the case of a mouse this would be 15,000 ultrathin slices. These are then stained and scanned before being reconstructed into a single three dimensional image. In a traditional laboratory digitally reconstructing a single human brain could take 20 years. This is mainly due to the vast amount of data that needs to be digitised with 12,000 terabytes required for a digitised human brain.
The new to open HUST facility will aim to improve the overall brain mapping process by increasing the speed of slicing and thereby increase tissue throughput. Combined with multiple devices working in parallel to enable the brain to be mapped from the cell upwards, thus allowing an atlas to be created for all species studied.
What insights will be provided?
By generating an atlas of the brain it will be possible for neuroscientists to map neural connections within the brain and to understand the brain’s function based on its structure. It will also enable the structure of brains to be compared and reveal the effect of particular diseases (eg Alzheimer’s) or learned behaviours on a brain’s cellular structures.
 David Cyranoski. China launches brain-imaging factory Hub aims to make industrial-scale high-resolution brain mapping a standard tool for neuroscience. Source: https://www.nature.com/news/china-launches-brain-imaging-factory-1.22456
Brain facts and figures. Source: https://faculty.washington.edu/chudler/facts.html