In search of the human soul: scientists try to find the essence of consciousness with world’s most powerful MRI

South China Morning Post

Billion-yuan device being developed in Shenzhen will ‘revolutionise brain studies’

South China Morning Post |

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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 world’s most powerful magnetic resonance imaging device 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. “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. He added the scientific community has not found any physical evidence to support these claims, and the super scanner might be the key to the answer. 

How the super scanner works

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.

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In addition, molecules containing sodium, phosphorus and potassium, for instance, play important roles in the transmission of electrochemical signals from one neuron to another. “If we can make these elements resonate in the same manner of the hydrogen, the information we obtain will increase like ‘boom, boom, boom’,” said a Beijing-based physicist also involved in the project.

“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,” he said.

Some scientists have expressed reservations about this ambitious project. Professor He Rongqiao, a researcher at the Institute of Biophysics under the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing who studies the health effects of magnetic forces on the brain, said he did not believe the machine would see the soul or consciousness.

“What is consciousness? There is not even a scientific definition. If you can’t even define it, how do you know what you see is what you are looking for?” he said.

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Safety concerns

Scientists involved in the project are excited not only because of the new potential discoveries that could be made by the device, but also for the technical challenge ahead.

The project team said that safety was a priority. No human would enter the device until extensive tests on animals like monkeys had been conducted to prove that the experiment would do no harm to health, the researchers said.

He cautioned a power blackout, for instance, could put the patient at high risk. “The strength of the magnetic field must decrease gradually. If it disappears suddenly, the breaking of alignment can be violent and cause damage,” he said. “It will be like falling off the roof of a tall building.