Wednesday, May 12, 2004

fMRI in the News

...Well, not exactly.  CNS Spectrums is not what you would call a leading news outlet.  Still, it devoted an entire issue to the subject; I just got it today.  Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging of the human brain is one of those obscure things that gets mentioned in the news occasionally, but it is not one of those things that reports pick up on and report reflexively.  Probably, that's because most of the individual research findings are so obscure as to be meaningless to someone who does not have a broad understanding of the scientific or clinical context of the discovery.

The functional  part of fMRI refers to the fact that the technique permits imaging of the function of an anatomical part, as opposed to just getting a picture of the part itself.  With fMRI, it is possible to see what parts of the brain become more (or less) active when certain tasks are performed. 

fMRI is mentioned infrequently in the Blogosphere.  According to Waypath, it is mentioned, on average, less than once per day.  Most of these are cursory mentions.  There was a bit of interest in an fMRI study showing the anatomic location of the placebo effect.  (Scientific American, February 20, 2004, Scientists See How Placebo Effect Eases Pain), and in an article about using fMRI to detect differences in the way the brains of Democrats and Republicans viewed emotionally-charged political images.  Aziz Poonawalla, on the blog UNMEDIA wrote  about the Democrat/Republican study as reported in the NYT.  It also was mentioned on JawsBlog  and Drudge Report.  Of greater clinical interest, there was a report showing possible utility of real-time biofeedback using fMRI to teach people to control pain sensations.  This was mentioned on Marginal RevolutionPain for Philosophers, and  Seedlings & SproutsDean's World  makes a brief mention of a study  on the localization of long-term memory.  This was not a study that used fMRI, but Dean's comments about the fact that there must be a limit to the amount of information the brain can hold.  This is something that has been investigated using fMRI.  FuturePundit elaborates on this, and adds some comments about a different study  that seems to show what happens in the brain when a person has an eureka moment.  The latter study is especially interesting because the authors show a correlation between the findings using fMRI and those revealed using EEG. 

fMRI is playing a key role in the Human Brain Project.  The HBP is a project, comparable in score to the Human Genome Project, that attempts to use bioinformatics technology to develop a complete picture of human brain function.  As Dean mentioned, there is a limit to how much information the brain can store.  This, ironically, limits out ability to understand the brain.  The HBP is an attempt to address this limitation.  As they say in their introduction:

Understanding brain function requires the integration of information from the level of the gene to the level of behavior. At each of these many and diverse levels there has been an explosion of information, with a concomitant specialization of scientists. The price of this progress and specialization is that it is becoming virtually impossible for any individual researcher to maintain an integrated view of the brain and to relate his or her narrow findings to this whole cloth. Although the amount of information to be integrated far exceeds human limitations, solutions to this problem are available from the advanced technologies of computer and information sciences.

In the first paragraph of this  post, I mentioned that the results of individual studies often are meaningless without a broad understanding of the scientific context.  This applies to scientists as well as laypersons.  The HBP may be helpful in helping specialists have ready access to the information required to place a given study in a meaningful context. 

By the way, for those regular folks who want to develop an understanding of the scientific context of various studies, a good way to find recent articles on scientific topics is to do a keyword search at ScienceDaily.com.  Here  is the result of a search for fMRI.  This does not give you the complete context, but it is a good place to start.

fMRI is not the only tool that allows for functional imaging of the brain.  Positron Emission Tomography and Single Photon Emission Computed Tomography have been in use for years.  In general, though, fMRI is the most practical of the currently-available methods, since it does not require the injection of radioactive tracers.  A related technique, magnetoencephalography, is under development.  Furthermore, MRI technology is constantly being improved

All of this is really background information for what I plan to post next, which is a review of the CNS Spectrums issue devoted to neuroimaging.     

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