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Scanner lets scientists peer at brain wiring

Publish Date:03/05/2004
Story Type:Economy;
Byline:Myra Lu

        The one organ that continues to baffle scientists around the world is the human brain. Every day, however, researchers get a little bit closer to their goal of unraveling the mystery surrounding how human beings think and act, especially since the human genome sequence was completed a couple of years ago. Recently, the scientific community in Taiwan was buoyant over a joint project between researchers in the United States and Taiwan aimed at helping them better understand how brains work.

        The Brain Research Center of the University System of Taiwan--an umbrella organization of four national universities--has collaborated with Taiwan's National Center for High-performance Computing and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in the United States to create a three-dimensional database for visualizing gene expressions in the brain of the fruit fly. Scientists will be able to observe the neuronal circuits in detail and gain a better understanding of how the brain works. This could help shed light on the causes of brain disease as well as possible treatment.

        The overall project, called FlyBrain Neurogenomics, germinated in 2001, according to Chiang Ann-shyn, director of the Institute of Biotechnology at National Tsing Hua University. "I was visiting Cold Spring Harbor then," Chiang said. "We found that we could complement each other's research and combine our resources toward a bigger goal." The two sides have since been working on various projects with particular interest in genes relating to learning and memory.

        Fruit flies, or Drosophila, are a model species for studying the brain because of the ease with which their genes can be manipulated. Since they only have four pairs of chromosomes, this allows scientists to observe their rapid mutations.

        Scientists are studying the fruit fly in order to pin down which brain circuits and genes control learning and memory. They believe that if the specific genetic sequences and neuronal connections can be mapped, the resulting circuit diagram and genetic network should provide clues to the operation of the brain.

        Before his visit, Chiang and his research team at Tsing Hua had already developed a high-resolution imaging tool, which is one of the reasons that the U.S. institute was drawn to them. It has pledged US$5 million in funding for the collaborative effort and is looking to double that amount in May.

        Wholly developed by Taiwanese scientists, this imaging technology is able to turn biological tissues transparent, facilitating the observation of expression patterns of genes at different times and locations during development. The technology, which took researchers at Tsing Hua seven years of trial and error to achieve, has been granted a 20-year patent from the U.S. government.

        Aside from gene discovery and circuit mapping, the project will develop new techniques and instruments for molecular brain imaging of mammals. This is one area that interests local industry the most, Chiang noted. Taiwan has built a solid foundation in information technology and computer science which, together with nanotechnology, could herald good business opportunities.

        The professor explained that such imaging enables observation of every neuron cell, how they interact and what their functional problems are. "It will work like a global positioning system," he said, adding that it can also be used on other organs such as the kidney and heart. It can be imagined that such a database will be useful for surgeons and drug manufacturers.

        Already, the team's research has made the cover of various scientific journals. Chiang expects explosive development in the next year or two. Despite such encouragement, the professor cautioned that Taiwan needs to grasp the opportune moment before it is too late.

        "Even though Taiwan has a head start, how long it will last is anybody's guess," Chiang admitted. "Scientists around the globe will try to reach the same goal with different means, and what worries me is whether we will be able to make the most of our current advantages." Chiang suggested that a project of this scale cannot be carried out by a single university or institute alone, and it needs full backing from the government.

        The study of the brain is likely to drive heated international competition as the Human Genome Project did a few years ago. Last year, Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft Corp., donated US$100 million to initiate a brain research project that also aims to crack the codes between genes and brain. Chiang pointed out that they share almost the same objectives. "Right now Taiwan has a chance to be part of this scientific advancement, and it is definitely a worthwhile pursuit," he stressed.