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brain imaging

Credit: Wellcome Centre for Human Neuroimaging, University College London.

In recent years, researchers fueled by the BRAIN Initiative and many other NIH-supported efforts have made remarkable progress in mapping the human brain in all its amazing complexity. Now, a powerful new imaging technology promises to further transform our understanding [1]. This wearable scanner, for the first time, enables researchers to track neural activity in people in real-time as they do ordinary things—be it drinking tea, typing on a keyboard, talking to a friend, or even playing paddle ball.

This new so-called magnetoencephalography (MEG) brain scanner, which looks like a futuristic cross between a helmet and a hockey mask, is equipped with specialized “quantum” sensors. When placed directly on the scalp surface, these new MEG scanners can detect weak magnetic fields generated by electrical activity in the brain. While current brain scanners weigh in at nearly 1,000 pounds and require people to come to a special facility and remain absolutely still, the new system weighs less than 2 pounds and is capable of generating 3D images even when a person is making motions.

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Everybody knows that it’s important to stay alert behind the wheel or while out walking on the bike path. But our ability to react appropriately to sudden dangers is influenced by whether we feel momentarily tired, distracted, or anxious. How is it that the brain can transition through such different states of consciousness while performing the same routine task, even as its basic structure and internal wiring remain unchanged?

A team of NIH-funded researchers may have found an important clue in zebrafish, a popular organism for studying how the brain works. Using a powerful new method that allowed them to find and track brain circuits tied to alertness, the researchers discovered that this mental state doesn’t work like an on/off switch. Rather, alertness involves several distinct brain circuits working together to bring the brain to attention. As shown in the video above that was taken at cellular resolution, different types of neurons (green) secrete different kinds of chemical messengers across the zebrafish brain to affect the transition to alertness. The messengers shown are: serotonin (red), acetylcholine (blue-green), and dopamine and norepinephrine (yellow).

What’s also fascinating is the researchers found that many of the same neuronal cell types and brain circuits are essential to alertness in zebrafish and mice, despite the two organisms being only distantly related. That suggests these circuits are conserved through evolution as an early fight-or-flight survival behavior essential to life, and they are therefore likely to be important for controlling alertness in people too. If correct, it would tell us where to look in the brain to learn about alertness not only while doing routine stuff but possibly for understanding dysfunctional brain states, ranging from depression to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

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Considering all the recent advances in mapping the complex circuitry of the human brain, you’d think we’d know all there is to know about the brain’s basic anatomy. That’s what makes the finding that I’m about to share with you so remarkable. Contrary to what I learned in medical school, the body’s lymphatic system extends to the brain—a discovery that could revolutionize our understanding of many brain disorders, from Alzheimer’s disease to multiple sclerosis (MS).

Researchers from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), the National Cancer Institute (NCI), and the University of Virginia, Charlottesville made this discovery by using a special MRI technique to scan the brains of healthy human volunteers [1]. As you see in this 3D video created from scans of a 47-year-old woman, the brain—just like the neck, chest, limbs, and other parts of the body—possesses a network of lymphatic vessels (green) that serves as a highway to circulate key immune cells and return metabolic waste products to the bloodstream.

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Bruce Yankner

Bruce Yankner

As a graduate student in the 1980s, Bruce Yankner wondered what if cancer-causing genes switched on in non-dividing neurons of the brain. Rather than form a tumor, would those genes cause neurons to degenerate? To explore such what-ifs, Yankner spent his days tinkering with neural cells, using viruses to insert various mutant genes and study their effects. In a stroke of luck, one of Yankner’s insertions encoded a precursor to a protein called amyloid. Those experiments and later ones from Yankner’s own lab showed definitively that high concentrations of amyloid, as found in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease, are toxic to neural cells [1].

The discovery set Yankner on a career path to study normal changes in the aging human brain and their connection to neurodegenerative diseases. At Harvard Medical School, Boston, Yankner and his colleague George Church are now recipients of an NIH Director’s 2016 Transformative Research Award to apply what they’ve learned about the aging brain to study changes in the brains of younger people with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, two poorly understood psychiatric disorders.

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Mouse Midbrain

Credit: Michael Shribak, Marine Biological Laboratory, Woods Hole, MA

Birds do it, bees do it, and even educated fleas do it. No, not fall in love, as the late Ella Fitzgerald so famously sang. Birds and insects can see polarized light—that is, light waves transmitted in a single directional plane—in ways that provides them with a far more colorful and detailed view of the world than is possible with the human eye.

Still, thanks to innovations in microscope technology, scientists have been able to tap into the power of polarized light vision to explore the inner workings of many complex biological systems, including the brain. In this image, researchers used a recently developed polarized light microscope to trace the spatial orientation of neurons in a thin section of the mouse midbrain. Neurons that stretch horizontally appear green, while those oriented at a 45-degree angle are pinkish-red and those at 225 degrees are purplish-blue. What’s amazing is that these colors don’t involve staining or tagging the cells with fluorescent markers: the colors are generated strictly from the light interacting with the physical orientation of each neuron.

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