Chinese scientists claim they are making steady headway toward producing an ultra-high-definition, three-dimensional scan of the intricate web of neurons and blood vessels of the human brain.

Teams of researchers and neurologists from Hainan University and Huazhong University of Science and Technology have likened this ambitious project to taking 3D photos of a huge forest of nearly 100 billion trees, capturing a panorama of not only the whole forest, but also detailed images of almost every twig and leaf on each tree.

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A scan of the brain of an adult. Photo: Xinhua

The human brain is estimated to have some 100 billion neurons.

Project leader Luo Qingming led the novel, patented research into measuring brain activity through near-infrared optical imaging when working in the US.

“The brain is as soft as boiled tofu. It is difficult to fix brain samples and mark the nerves and blood vessels inside. It took us eight years to crack that problem to find the most effective way to do that,” Luo told Xinhua.

The continuous changes of neural networks and brain activities also pose great challenges to the analysis of brain functions.

In Luo’s lab in the eastern Chinese city of Suzhou, a sample of a rat’s brain is wrapped in resin like a piece of amber and is sliced into 10,000 layers, each just 1 micron thick. Each layer is then scanned and imaged.

The images of neural and vascular systems then look like intricate highways on a computer display. The resolution of the scans is said to be comparable to a picture from an 80-megapixel camera.

Luo said his team had moved from scanning rat brains to the more complicated primate brains. Scientists estimate a mouse brain has tens of millions of neurons, and a monkey brain has billions.

One challenge is how to process the huge chunks of data from the process of scanning.

It’s estimated that the data generated from imaging an adult human brain would be equivalent to a staggering 200,000 4K movies, which would take up all the storage space of the Sunway TaihuLight, currently China’s most powerful supercomputer.

Luo’s team cooperates with labs and institutes in the US and provides data for brain research to their peers in Europe in a joint bid to cure brain-related ailments such as depression, Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s.

“Once we have sufficient financial support and concentrate our efforts, it will be possible to get an ultra-high-resolution map of the human brain in five to 10 years.”