Researchers map, measure brainís neural connections
NIH-funded computer scientists at Brown University have created software to examine the human brain.
Balintfy: The brain is the most complex part of the human body. A variety of machines and techniques can create pictures of the structures and activities inside the brain. Medical images in color and 3-D can show remarkable details. But David Laidlaw, a professor of computer science and an NIH-funded researcher at Brown University says to study something complex, like the brain, it helps to look at it simply first.
Laidlaw: If you tried to understand the entirety of the brain in, you know, one picture say, there'd just be too much, it would be overwhelming. And so there's a process of discovery that usually involves looking at simpler representations first.
Balintfy: He explains that looking at the whole map of the United States when planning a short trip would be similar.
Laidlaw: The brain is organized in actually quite an analogous way. It has lots of big pathways, which go from one region of the brain to another, but then they branch out like the little roads; and oftentimes, problems can show up at that detailed level or they can show up in the bigger roadways and looking at things at the right level helps to find them more quickly.
Balintfy: Much like a traveler might use Google Maps to zoom in and out of a roadmap while planning a trip, Laidlaw says Google Maps has also been adapted for navigating the brain.
Laidlaw: One of the things that Radu Jianu, my PhD student, did was to recognize that Google Maps is a great familiar interface for navigating through a two-dimensional world like the roadways and the paths that we navigate through all the time on the surface of the earth.
Jianu: So my lab was looking into creating visual tools for looking at brains.
Balintfy: Thatís David Laidlawís PhD student, Radu Jianu.
Jianu: So we are using scans, brain scans, which yield sort of matrices and numbers and we convert that into paths in space, into 3-D paths in space. And then we take those 3-D paths in space and project them into 2-D and then we show that in the Google Map.
Balintfy: Jianu and Laidlaw are computer scientists and have basically made a new tool for medical researchers to better see and understand the images theyíre already getting.
Laidlaw: Oftentimes, when a neurologist or a brain scientist is studying something about a brain, there's something different about that brain and they're trying to find it. So it's sort of a needle in a haystack kind of process. It's a search process. And if they don't know where to look, then they kind of have to look everywhere. What we're trying to do is provide something like a metal detector, if you will, something that finds needles or at least gives you an idea of where to look for needles as you're in amongst all the hay in a haystack.
Balintfy: Laidlaw adds that there is another way this Google Map aspect can help researchers: itís web-based.
Laidlaw: Sharing is one way that these tools could help. I think that one of the easiest sharing things that will happen is that people will share their knowledge of what a brain image might look like in Google Maps.
Balintfy: Brown Universityís Laidlaw says a common visual representation used by many brain scientists can help speed up discussion between different labs, perhaps translating to discovery. To learn more about this NIH-funded research visit the website, http://news.brown.edu . This is Joe Balintfy, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Maryland.
About This Audio Report
Reporter: Joe Balintfy
Sound Bite: David Laidlaw, Radu Jianu
Topic: brain, human brain, map, brain mapping, brain image, neurologist, brain scientist