June 30, 2004
New Magnetic Resonance Imaging Method Measures Electrical Activity

Whitehead Institute Fellow Alan Jasanoff at MIT is developing new techniques to use functional Magnetic Resonance Imagining (fMRI) to study electrical activity in the brain.

Identifying such networks is a goal that drives Jasanoff, who is pioneering new fMRI techniques that go beyond blood flow to expose the brain’s electrical activity—a series of impulses that transmits messages between neurons. The techniques are still experimental, so Jasanoff works with laboratory animals to isolate neural circuits involved in simple behaviors. “What we learn about simple behaviors in animals guides us toward an understanding of more complex behaviors in humans,” Jasanoff says. “Our findings can influence the direction of human research.”

Researchers trying to “get inside the brain” during experimental research traditionally have relied on electrodes wired directly into neural tissue. This process is not only invasive and cumbersome, it’s also limited in terms of its spatial coverage—electrodes gather data only from the area to which they are attached. Jasanoff’s research is offering another option, namely, a set of MRI contrasting, or imaging, agents that can selectively be activated by the brain’s electrical currents. “My approach will provide a direct assay for neural activity deep within the brain,” Jasanoff says. “This is unlike anything that is currently available.”

To date, Jasanoff’s focus has been on establishing a way to test imaging agents for fMRI in single brain cells of an oversized housefly called a “blowfly.” He presented the blowfly brain imaging approach in a 2002 article in the Journal of Magnetic Resonance, and demonstrated an oxygen imaging application using the setup in a 2003 article in the journal Magnetic Resonance in Medicine. Now Jasanoff is completing work on two new brain imaging agents, and intends to adapt the agents so they can be used safely in higher organisms, for instance, rodents. Studies in animals are necessary before the agents can be used in experiments with human subjects, a step in the research that Jasanoff notes is many years away.

The current use of fMRI to measure blood flow limits how much information can be discovered. Imaging agents that make possible the measure of actual patterns of electrical activity would allow fMRI to far more directly measure brain activity than is currently the case. So Jasanoff's work is potentially very important for brain studies.

While this work is years away from being applied to humans it illustrates a larger trend familiar to long time FuturePundit readers: biological assay tools are becoming more powerful. Our ability to measure biological structures and activity is steadily increasing. Phenomena that are now difficult to study and to manipulate will become increasingly easier to watch and to change.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2004 June 30 10:15 AM  Biotech Advance Rates

Rob Sperry said at July 1, 2004 7:09 PM:

Maybe they can combine the new measurment with new vibration sensors to get clearer pictures..


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