Advances in imaging could deepen knowledge of brain

By Jean-Louis Santini — New imaging techniques enable exploration of the brain in much more detail than ever before, opening the door to greater understanding of neurological problems and possibly new treatments, researchers say. Showcased this week at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting, the research and innovations are the product of three US scientists involved in a project launched by former president Barack Obama in 2013 to unlock the inner workings of the brain.
Obama’s Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) initiative promised a multidisciplinary approach, with a budget of $434 million for 2017, aimed at unlocking the mysteries of the brain and treating diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and schizophrenia.
One of the technologies developed as part of the initiative, called Scape, enables scientists to see brain structures at a microscopic level.
Scape permits the three-dimensional observation of individual neurons in the brain of a fruit fly as the insect is in flight, searching for food or suddenly afraid for its life, said Elisabeth Hillman, professor of biomedical engineering at Columbia University.
“We can image every single neuron in the entire brain of these organisms, which was never possible to do before,” she said.
The new tool opens up multiple paths for research, including deciphering the signals seen in magnetic resonance imagery (MRI).
Another new technology, the recently patented portable MRI, also promises advances for mobile diagnosis, said Julie Brefczynski-Lewis, assistant professor of research at West Virginia University.
The size of an American football helmet, the technology is worn on the head and does not interfere with patients’ ability to move freely.
“With this technique, you can study someone in the ER (emergency room) with a stroke and find out different treatment options that may be more appropriate,” Brefczynski-Lewis said. “It is personal medicine.”
Another area of brain study  involves a technology that can activate or fire neurons from a distance using radio waves or magnetic fields. “The idea is to be non-invasive,” said Sarah Stanley, assistant professor of medicine at Icahn School of medicine at Mount Sinai in New York.
Activating neurons in precise locations of the brain could help discover new treatments by showing which cells are involved in which illnesses.