Recently introduced software for tracking the activity of nerve cells is expected to help researchers monitor changes in the brain.

The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, (CSIRO; Campbell, Australia) launched HCA-Vision Oct. 14 at the annual conference of the Society for Neuroscience (Washington) in Atlanta. The software was released in Australia in February.

HCA-Vision is an automated image analysis software package that rapidly and reproducibly measures functional features of neuronal cells in 2D images. It is designed to enable researchers to measure significant features of cells' appearance as they change in response to drugs, biochemicals or diseases such as dementia. It runs on a standard personal computer.

Pascal Vallotton, PhD, leader of biotech imaging at CSIRO Mathematical and Information Sciences, told Diagnostics & Imaging Week that the software will speed the progress of brain research.

"The main benefit of the software is the time it saves to quantitatively and reliably measure the morphology of neurons, including the topology of their neurite trees," Vallotton said.

Few images are more complex than the intricate, web-like branches of nerve cells photographed through a microscope, Vallotton said.

HCA-Vision guides the process of importing images of neurons, choosing and checking optimal parameters for the image analysis, making measurements and then exporting results — in minutes, CSIRO said.

For example, the neurite outgrowth module of HCA-Vision measures morphological properties of neuronal cells, such as the number of branching points, the total neurite length, the number of branch layers, and the number of primary branches.

The software was developed by CSIRO's biotech imaging team that built on mathematical software code libraries from many years' of image analysis research and added a database-supported interface, the company said.

Recognizing that a number of other products on the market address similar issues, Vallotton said HCA-Vision stands out by providing "very fast and accurate image analysis results, and includes full batch processing capabilities to analyze thousands of images automatically."

The software is designed for neuroscience researchers in universities, research institutes, and hospitals. It also could be used by researchers in biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies conducting target identification/ validation and compound screening.

Malcolm Horne, PhD, professor of neurobiology at the Howard Florey Institute (Melbourne, Australia), said that software for quantitatively characterizing cells' appearance will aid competitive research in neurobiology.

"Such software will be essential in the race to find treatments for the major diseases of the brain and mind, diseases that include Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, Multiple Sclerosis and schizophrenia," Horne said.

In the U.S. alone, an estimated 4.8 million people suffer from Alzheimer's or related dementia, according to CSIRO.

Research focused on the brain and its activities "is becoming increasingly urgent in a world where tens of millions of people suffer neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's," Vallotton said.

"Research focused at developing treatments against these disorders involves model systems, such as cell cultures subjected to diverse treatments including candidate drugs," he said. "The large number of image data generated makes it absolutely necessary to have automated tools, such as HCA-Vision, in order to quantify the effect of these treatments."

The company said HCA-Vision was previously only available to large pharmaceutical companies with specialized and expensive instruments. The software is now a tool for smaller labs in hospitals and research institutes who can use the CSIRO software on a personal computer.

HCA-Vision's price tag is $5,000 for academics and $10,000 for companies, according to Vallotton.

CSIRO reports that it is working with an Australian brain research institute to validate HCA-Vision. Vallotton said that the results will be reported in scientific journals soon.

CSIRO also is working on a 3-D version of the software designed to allow researchers to study neurons in their in vivo environment, making it more relevant for generating preclinical data. The statistics produced also would be more accurate, Vallotton said.

CSIRO is Australia's national science agency and bills itself as one of the largest and most diverse research agencies in the world.

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