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Saturday, August 18, 2018

Scientists Are Developing a Unique Identifier for Your Brain | Science - WIRED

Original story reprinted with permission from Quanta Magazine, an editorially independent publication of the Simons Foundation whose mission is to enhance public understanding of science by covering research developments and trends in mathematics and the physical and life sciences.

A neurological “functional fingerprint” allows scientists to explore the influence of genetics, environment and aging on brain connectivity, as WIRED reports.  

Damien Fair (at right), an associate professor of neuroscience and psychiatry at Oregon Health and Science University, heads a lab that maps how brain areas work together during tasks and behaviors. With colleagues such as assistant professor Oscar Miranda-Dominguez (at center) and research associate Michaela Cordova (at left), Fair turns MRI data from human subjects into profiles of the functional “connectome.”
Photo: Jordan Sleeth/OHSU
Michaela Cordova, a research associate and lab manager at Oregon Health and Science University, begins by “de-metaling”: removing rings, watches, gadgets and other sources of metal, double-checking her pockets for overlooked objects that could, in her words, “fly in.” Then she enters the scanning room, raises and lowers the bed, and waves a head coil in the general direction of the viewing window and the iPad camera that’s enabling this virtual lab tour (I’m watching from thousands of miles away in Massachusetts). Her voice is mildly distorted by the microphone embedded in the MRI scanner, which from my slightly blurry vantage point looks less like an industrial cannoli than a beast with a glowing blue mouth. I can’t help but think that eerie description might resonate with her usual clientele.

Cordova works with children, assuaging their fears, easing them in and out of the scanner while coaxing them with soft words, Pixar movies and promises of snacks to minimize wiggling. These kids are enrolled in research aimed at mapping the brain’s neural connections.

The physical links between brain regions, collectively known as the “connectome,” are part of what distinguish humans cognitively from other species. But they also differentiate us from one another. Scientists are now combining neuroimaging approaches with machine learning to understand the commonalities and differences in brain structure and function across individuals, with the goal of predicting how a given brain will change over time because of genetic and environmental influences.

The lab where Cordova works, headed by associate professor Damien Fair, is concerned with the functional connectome, the map of brain regions that coordinate to carry out specific tasks and to influence behavior...

Characterizing the Connectome 
Traditional techniques for mapping the functional connectome focus on just two brain regions at a time, using MRI data to correlate how the activity of each changes in relation to the other. Brain regions with signals that vary in unison are assigned a score of 1. If one increases while the other decreases, that merits a –1. If there is no observable relationship between the two, that’s a 0.

This approach, however, has limitations. For instance, it considers these pairs of regions independently of the rest of the brain, even though each is likely to also be influenced by inputs from neighboring areas, and those extra inputs might mask the true functional connection of any pair.

Source: WIRED