Elderly women in Shanghai, China, suffering from dementia, one of the diseases the new effort may tackle.

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Here’s how China is challenging the U.S. and European brain initiatives

SHANGHAI, CHINA—The nascent China Brain Project took another step toward reality last week with the launch of the Shanghai Research Center for Brain Science and Brain-Inspired Intelligence. The new center and its Beijing counterpart, launched 2 months ago, are expected to become part of an ambitious national effort to bring China to the forefront of neuroscience. But details of that 15-year project—expected to rival similar U.S. and EU efforts in scale and ambition—are still being worked out, 2 years after the government made it a priority.

Preparation for the national effort “was taking quite a long time,” says Zhang Xu, a neuroscientist and executive director of the new center here. So Beijing and Shanghai got started on their own plans, he says. China’s growing research prowess and an increasing societal interest in neuroscience—triggered in part by an aging population—as well as commercial opportunities and government support are all coming together to make this “a good time for China’s brain science efforts,” Zhang says.

Government planners called for brain research to be a key science and technology project in the nation’s 13th Five-Year Plan, adopted in spring 2016. The effort would have three main pillars, according to a November 2016 Neuron paper from a group that included Poo Mu-ming, director of Shanghai’s Institute of Neuroscience (ION), part of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS). It would focus on basic research on neural mechanisms underlying cognition, translational studies of neurological diseases with an emphasis on early diagnosis and intervention, and brain simulations to advance artificial intelligence and robotics. Support under the 5-year plan was just the start of a 15-year program, the group wrote.

The authors saw an opportunity for basic research in the “enormous gap in our knowledge [of the brain] at the mesoscopic level,” where neural circuits connect specific types of brain cells. They suggested China might make an important contribution by mapping those circuits and activity patterns using animal models, a plan now called the International Mesoscopic Connectome Project. China has developed expertise in studying the brain using macaques, and animal research faces less opposition in China than in the West. (Zhang, who is also at ION, advocates for a fourth focus, on how education in mathematics and language, for example, affects neural development.)

But an official green light is still pending. Scientists suggest the complexity of the project and a recent revamp of responsibilities at the Ministry of Science and Technology have delayed a final decision. “We sincerely hope we can see the announcement of the launch of this project very soon,” says Yang Xiong-Li, a neuroscientist at Fudan University here. The city of Beijing and local institutions took the initiative and launched the Chinese Institute for Brain Research, announced on 22 March; Beijing is putting up much of the funding for the institute. It and the Shanghai center “aim to become world-class research institutes for brain research,” says Luo Minmin, a neuroscientist at the National Institute of Biological Sciences in Beijing and co-director of what will be the northern center.

The Shanghai center will “integrate and expand” ongoing efforts, Zhang says. The city’s Huashan Hospital, long a center for neurosurgery, is already building a new facility dedicated to clinical neuroscience, he notes; CAS and the city of Shanghai also put up money for a brain mapping project in 2012 and a scheme to get area brain researchers to collaborate in 2014. The region hosts budding commercial efforts to develop brain-inspired technologies. Zhang estimates some 1 billion yuan ($157 million) annually has been flowing into brain-related research here in recent years.

Although the new center will start recruiting its own research teams later this year, Zhang says, many of its principal investigators will have dual appointments and keep labs at their current institutes. The center will provide a mechanism to share pricey equipment and will establish a database to gather research and clinical information not currently being shared. International cooperation will be a priority.

Once the national effort is underway, the two new centers are likely to become its northern and southern hubs. Researchers expect a high-level committee to set priorities, but the two centers will retain a degree of autonomy. In Beijing, for instance, “we are encouraged by the Board of Trustees, which is led by the Beijing municipal government, to do whatever we think is important,” Luo says.

As for the overall project, Yang urges a step-by-step approach. “Given the ambitious scope of the project and the relatively limited resources in China, I don’t think it is realistic to start the project all at once.”

The next step just might be the launch of Poo’s proposed connectome project. It was the topic of a 2 May symposium in Beijing organized by the science ministry. But as for when it might be approved, “I am not at liberty to make any statement at this moment,” Poo wrote in an email to Science.

With reporting by Bian Huihui in Shanghai, China.