Scientists learn to better read our minds

October 19th, 2011

A new technique which lets scientists ‘see’ our brain waves at work could revolutionise our understanding of the human body’s most complex organ and help transform the lives of people suffering from schizophrenia and ADHD.

Although, scientifically, the brain is the most studied organ in our body, we know relatively little about it. That could all change as a result of this research led by Dr Matt Brookes in the Sir Peter Mansfield Magnetic Resonance Centre at the University and published in the prestigious journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) of the United States.

Using a neuroimaging technique called magnetoencephalography (MEG), which measures the brain’s electrical signals, and mathematical techniques, scientists have found a non-invasive way to harness the dynamic nature of brain signals to probe the subtle electrical processes associated with brain activity.

They are working with the School of Psychiatry to apply these methods to patients with schizophrenia and ADHD. Dr Brookes, a Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellow, who led the research, said: “We hope these techniques will allow a novel, simple and non-invasive means to identify the network dysfunction associated with these two debilitating conditions.”

“If we are to go on to achieve a full understanding of brain networks and their role, an understanding of the electrical processes is critical. MEG does this non-invasively, via assessment of the magnetic fields induced outside the head by electrical currents in the brain.”

Neuroscience has been revolutionised by the introduction of ‘functional neuroimaging’, a collective term for a number of techniques that allow us to ‘see’ the brain at work. One research area uses neuroimaging to measure brain activity in distributed processing ‘networks’ — the communication between separate brain regions. Accurate communication across the brain is integral to the way in which we function: perturbed communication is indicative of disease.

To date, most studies have used functional MRI (fMRI), which is based on magnetic resonance imaging and detects changes in blood flow brought about by brain activity. However, the blood flow response is an indirect consequence of electrical function in brain cells and it is this electrical function scientists want to study as it is the driving force behind communication in the brain.

With MEG, Dr Brookes and his team at Nottingham, in collaboration with the Oxford Centre for Human Brain Activity and the Oxford Centre for Functional MRI of the Brain at the University of Oxford together with The Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging at University College London (UCL) have shown that electrical activity in the brain underlies the network connections previously observed in fMRI studies.

Dr Brookes said: “Our method of investigating electrical brain signals is completely harmless to the subject and it offers exciting possibilities to probe the electrophysiological pathology that underlies neuropathological conditions.”

The work was funded by the Leverhulme Trust, the Wellcome Trust and The University of Nottingham.

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