Recently, Pallab Ghosh, the science correspondent for BBC News in Boston, managed to go through a rather amazing experience – one we confess we are rather jealous of. Utilizing new brain scanning and imaging technology that has emerged in conjunction with the US-based Human Connectome Project (HCP), scientists are now able to assemble absolutely amazing images of the connections – the living wiring – that each individual human brain is built on.
The brain of course is the most astoundingly wired and networked device ever created. We use the word “device” here merely for convenience – we hope obviously; we are after all talking about imaging living and fully functioning brains in real time. One need only spend a few minutes on the Connectome site to begin to get a sense of what scientists are now able to achieve.
The Laboratory of Neuro Imaging (LONI) at UCLA has partnered with the Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) to pull together the technology – which, to say the least, is not only about the actual imaging technology, but also about the ability to gather and analyze a huge stream of data – yes, at its core HCP is essentially a supersized big data project. At the twenty thousand foot level, LONI and Martinos are working closely together to develop and establish greatly improved methods to:
- Detect patterns of crossing white-matter fibers.
- Perform di?usion tractography (non-invasive brain imaging data to trace fiber bundles in the human brain).
- Provide network theoretical measurements
The brain imaging technology does two essential things:
- Powerful and rapidly changing magnetic fields trace tiny particles of water travelling along the brain’s larger nerve fibers.
- By following these particles of water the technology is then trace the major connections within the brain.
Sure, it sounds ridiculously simple.
The ultimate goal of course is to then utilize the resulting scans in any number of applications that will benefit significantly from the ability to map healthy brain connectivity. A key piece of the puzzle here is to not only be able to analyze the big data that forms the foundation of the scans – which will take full advantage of large-scale networked supercomputing capabilities to deliver on, but to then also deliver the actual imaging through the use of new innovative state of the art visualization techniques. The visualizations, provided in very rich colors, are the “glue” that holds the networked maps together for researchers.
As the website notes (along with many other details – the website link is provided at the end of our article), HCP is a well-funded five-year project funded by the National Institutes of Health. The chief goal is to map the entire human neural wiring system by scanning the brains of 1,200 Americans. Both details of HCP’s collections of tools – along with the visualization technology, as well as all of the collected data will be publicly available to scientists as the scans are processed – check the website for details on availability.
In addition to the scans, researchers will also collect genetic and behavioral data from the people that are scanned. This is critical information necessary to build up a detailed framework of all the factors that influence the human psyche – and the wiring involved. A critical thing to be aware of is that the brain – unlike the “device” we noted earlier, is not hardwired. The “wiring involved” is far more complex.
That is, the brain’s wiring to some degree actually changes moment to moment in real time as people go through live experiences, and so each person's brain map – or connectome (“connectome” plays off the word genome, and is used to refer to any comprehensive map of neural connections in the brain) - is different and forms an ever changing record of who we are and what we have done.
It will certainly be interesting to see, for example, how a person’s brain map changes over several years – perhaps following an extended sequence of, say, mastering a certain topic or physical capability. Do the connections themselves remain the same and grow in size? Perhaps they become reduced in size and faster in their transmissions. We will soon know.
From the Depths of Psychiatric Dungeons…
The Martinos Center worked closely with Siemens to produce the Connectome scanner which combines DTI, HARDI and DSI to collect the data necessary for a truer assessment of the anatomical structure of the brain and its neuronal pathways. A drawing of the scanner, shown below, actually – and quite ironically -looks like something out of a 1940s psychiatric thriller or horror movie, but it represents the absolute state of the art in brain scanning and imaging technology. An interesting fact noted by Ghosh is that the scanner's magnets require 22 megawatts of electricity to run a scan - enough to power a nuclear submarine, according to Ghosh.
The research possibilities are nearly endless. From a certain point of view researchers literally end up with brain wiring patterns – what they will uncover should prove extraordinary with enough scans, data, analysis and visualizations. We ourselves want to know how politicians’ brains are wired – how are they different, and what can be done to help them (we kid, we kid…)?
More seriously, we have always been fascinated by certain aspects of the arts – what makes an amazing guitarist so amazing, for example? Yes, there is a lot about instruments and music that is “learned” but natural affinities for such (add your own here – scientist, athlete, extraordinary teacher, writer…) are far harder to trace and understand. We would also like to understand why genius – no matter what the field –is also associated with amazing memory. Why is that?
Another thing that has fascinated us since junior high school is the notion that an amazing internal memory capability is a prerequisite for genius? You always need the information at hand. We absolutely believe it is a prerequisite (having long lamented our own merely decent memory abilities), but perhaps it is absolutely not true. HCP will help us find out.
Of course, just as the images will be used to uncover such things, they will also be used to uncover what in many cases we now consider “mis-wired.” What does a bi-polar diagnosed brain network look like, for example? Once we know (assuming we can know, and the technology will help us uncover that as well) we will then be able to take it to the next level – can we affect a rewiring or a set of external connections that can tune the internal wiring? It sounds like sci-fi only it isn’t.
As we develop these brain scans and imaging – as we become able to truly see the wiring, what will we learn in terms of connecting to the wiring through external sources? Can brainwave scans become associated with the internal wiring? One thing we’re very interested in is how the results might be applied to wearable technology over time. In fact, we original wrote the article for our Wearable Technology site.
An Actual Brain Imaging Experience
Well, as we noted at the beginning of our story, Pallab Ghosh was invited by MGH researchers to undergo his own brain imaging scans – what an amazing way to “get the details” on the project. As we also noted earlier, we’re very jealous – and we would not turn down such an invite! Ghosh was offered a choice - a 10-minute scan or a much richer 45-minute scan that would provide one of the most detailed scans of the brain ever carried out. Ghosh notes that only 50 such scans have ever been done, so indeed this was a privilege. He also notes that, “It was a pleasant experience enclosed in the scanner's vast twin magnets.” That’s good to know!
We need to note that we are for the most part paraphrasing below from Ghosh’s own account of the actual experience, which we’ve provided a link to at the end of our article.
The result of the full scan was a detailed 3D computer image that revealed the important pathways of Ghosh’s brain in vivid color. One of the lead researchers at MGH, Professor Van Wedeen, gave Ghosh a guided tour of – literally – “the inside of my head.” He showed Ghosh the connection that allows him to see and another that helps understand speech. Below is shown a wide view of Ghosh’s brain, and shows a complete cross-section through the front of the brain, with cingulum bundles at the center.
There were twin arcs that process emotions and a bundle that connect the left and right sides of his brain. The current state of the visualization software allows Prof Wedeen “to fly around and through these pathways (such as those shown above) - including zooming in to see intricate details.”
Pallab Ghosh’s own article and a full set of images of his brain are available for those interested in his direct story and the detailed images – which also show different views as well as zoomed in views.
The Human Connectome Project website provides many additional details for the overall project.
Edited by Brooke Neuman