The device is said to ‘revolutionise brain studies’, aid research into Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s.
China has launched a plan to develop the world’s most powerful brain scanner, one that could generate an extremely strong magnetic field to observe for the first time the structure and activities of every neuron in a living human brain.
The goal is to build the world’s most powerful magnetic resonance imaging device.
The projected scanner would not only produce a snapshot with details far beyond what existing instruments can provide, but also track various types of chemical agents including sodium, phosphorus and potassium that pass critical signals along neural fibre networks to study consciousness and brain-related diseases such as Parkinson’s.
The billion-yuan device “will revolutionise brain studies”, said a senior scientist working on the project, which is based in the city of Shenzhen in southern China’s Guangdong province.
The total budget for the facility, which is still under construction, will exceed that of FAST (Five Hundred Meter Aperture Spherical Telescope), the world’s largest telescope in Pingtan, Guizhou province, said the scientist, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the programme has not gone fully public.
But instead of aiming at the sky, this powerful “telescope” would peer inward to probe the origin and evolution of consciousness, the scientist said.
“It will show us a different world with phenomenon unseen before … maybe even the soul,” he said.
The soul – or human consciousness – remains the stuff of heated debate, the researcher said. From religious leaders to philosophers to ordinary individuals, many people believe it exists and have theories to describe or explain it. But the scientific community has not found any physical evidence to support these claims.
The Shenzhen Institutes of Advanced Technology, under the Chinese Academy of Sciences, released a statement late last month announcing that the first phase of the project had recently been approved by the central government.
The prominent physicist Zhao Zhongxian, winner of China’s top science award for his contributions in superconducting material science, is the programme’s science adviser, the statement said.
Zhao said that China had a solid foundation and advantages in numerous areas like superconducting materials, imaging electronics and engineering equipment. He urged the project team to beat competitors in other countries and said that the only way to do so was by “independent innovation”.
Human tissues such as organs, muscles and brain contain a large amount of water. In a strong magnetic field, the nuclei of hydrogen in water molecules, for instance, align and spin in the same direction.
By applying radio waves to the magnetic field, scientists can make the nuclei flip their spins in opposite directions. By then gradually reducing the strength of the magnetic field, the nuclei would return to their normal state one after another, releasing a weak radio signal radiation.
Detecting and measuring the signal can reveal the internal structure of tissues, direction and speed of blood flows or the intensity of oxygen consumption. In brain science, researchers can use the information to deduce, for example, which areas of the brain are turned on or switched off when engaging in certain types of cognitive tasks.
The technology, known as magnetic resonance imaging, can also help study or diagnose neurodegenerative conditions including Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s.
“We may for the first time capture a full picture of human consciousness or even the essence of life itself. Then we can define them and explain how they work in precise physical terms – just like Newton and Einstein defined and explained the universe.”