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Unveiling the Brain’s Architecture

A pair of initiatives to improve brain imaging is revealing how its structure differentiates humans from other animals and could lead to cures for mental illness.

By Anita Slomski // The MGH Research Issue 2011
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diffusion spectrum image

Courtesy of Randy Buckner and Koene Van Dijk

Using a new technology called diffusion spectrum imaging, scientists are able to see for the first time—and in stunning detail—how neural fibers crisscross the brain and connect its regions. The imaging technique, developed at Massachusetts General Hospital, greatly increases the power of conventional scanners and uses mega-magnets to map the way water molecules move in the brain’s gray matter, delineating in real time which neurons are activated and in which direction they are sending impulses.

The following images by MGH’s Randy Buckner, director of the Psychiatric Neuroimaging Research Program, and Bruce Rosen, director of the Athinoula A. Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging, depict the connecting architecture, known as white matter, of one person’s brain. The colors in the images, which were taken at various angles and show different brain subsections, allow scientists to track the fibers’ multiple pathways. But less than 1% of the white matter is revealed here; capturing too much of the dense neural pathways would obscure the brain’s underlying structure.

Two ambitious new initiatives directed by Buckner and Rosen—the Superstruct Project and the Human Connectome Project, which also involves collaborators at the University of California, Los Angeles—are collecting images like these showing the white matter architecture of thousands of adults. Their goal is to understand what makes the human brain different from the brains of other animals and why some people are at risk for mental illness. Neuroscientists believe that diseases such as schizophrenia, bipolar disease and autism may be caused by subtle disruptions to the brain’s wiring. In compiling and comparing brain images of so many healthy and mentally ill people, scientists hope to see how connections go awry in disease so that they can develop early interventions and therapy targets.

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Brain Imaging Progress

Imaging Breakthrough

From MRI to PET to diffusion spectrum imaging, as our technology to capture images of the brain improves, so does our understanding of it.

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