High Resolution Images Show Brain Activity Like Never Before

Monday, October 7, 2013


Using a high ​​field strength fMRI magnet, researchers have achieved images of the human brain stem at resolutions not previously possible. The work has let them peer into the tiny PAG gray region, an area not previously seen in such detail.

D eep in our brains  there is a tiny struc­ture shaped like an elon­gated donut that plays a cru­cial role in man­aging how the body func­tions. Mea­suring just 10 mil­lime­ters in length and six mil­lime­ters in diam­eter, the hollow struc­ture is involved in a com­plex array of behav­ioral, cog­ni­tive, and affec­tive phe­nomena, such as the fight or flight response, pain reg­u­la­tion, and even sexual activity, according to senior research sci­en­tist Ajay Satpute.

With a name longer than the struc­ture itself, the “mid­brain peri­aque­ductal gray region,” or PAG, is extra­or­di­narily dif­fi­cult to inves­ti­gate in humans because of its size and intri­cate struc­ture, he said.

Now, in research published online in the journal Pro­ceed­ings of the National Academy of Sci­ence, Sat­pute and his col­leagues at Northeastern University's Inter­dis­ci­pli­nary Affec­tive Sci­ence Lab­o­ra­tory explain how they overcame thes challenges using  state-​​of-​​the art imaging to cap­ture this com­plex neural activity.

The research could ultimately help scientists explore the grounds of human emotion like never before.

“The PAG’s func­tional prop­er­ties occur at such small spa­tial scales that we need to cap­ture its activity at very high res­o­lu­tion in order to under­stand it,” he explained.

periaqueductal gray region,
Isolation of the PAG - Image Source: Ajay Satpute et. al.

Related articles
Until recently, neu­roimaging studies have been car­ried out on func­tional mag­netic res­o­nance imaging, or fMRI, instruments containing mag­nets of up to three Teslas, a mea­sure of mag­netic field strength. These instru­ments pro­vide crit­ical data for under­standing how the brain’s dif­ferent areas respond to dif­ferent stimuli, but when those areas become suf­fi­ciently small and com­pli­cated, their res­o­lu­tion falls short.
In the case of the tiny PAG, this problem is para­mount because the PAG wraps around a hollow core, or “aque­duct,” con­taining cere­brospinal fluid, Sat­pute said.

Tra­di­tional fMRI instru­ments cannot dis­tin­guish neural activity occur­ring in the PAG from that occur­ring in the CS fluid. Even more dif­fi­cult is iden­ti­fying where within the PAG itself spe­cific responses originate.

In col­lab­o­ra­tion with researchers at the Mass­a­chu­setts Gen­eral Hos­pital in Boston, Sat­pute and his col­leagues used a high-​​tech fMRI instru­ment that con­tains a seven-​​Tesla magnet. The force of the instru­ment is so strong (albeit harm­less) that one can feel its pull when simply walking by. Cou­pled with painstaking manual data analyses, Sat­pute was able to resolve activity in sub-​​regions of the PAG with more pre­ci­sion than ever before.

With their method in hand, the research team showed 11 human research sub­jects images of burn vic­tims, gory injuries, and other con­tent related to threat, harm, and loss while keeping tabs on the PAG’s activity. Researchers also showed the sub­jects neu­tral images such and then com­pared results between the two scenarios.

The proof-​​of-​​concept study showed emotion-​​related activity con­cen­trated in par­tic­ular areas of the PAG. While sim­ilar results have been demon­strated in animal models, nothing like it had pre­vi­ously been shown in human brains.

Using this method­ology, the researchers said they would not only gain a better under­standing of the PAG but also be able to inves­ti­gate a range of brain-​​related research ques­tions beyond this par­tic­ular structure.

Seven-​​Tesla brain imaging pro­vides an unprece­dented view of regions like the PAG while they respond to stimuli, said Lisa Feldman Bar­rett, director of the Inter­dis­ci­pli­nary Affec­tive Sci­ence Lab­o­ra­tory. “Studies like this are a crit­ical step for­ward in bridging human and non­human animal studies of emo­tion, because they offer a level of res­o­lu­tion in human brains that was pre­vi­ously pos­sible only in studies of non-​​human animal,” she said.

SOURCE  Northeastern University

By 33rd SquareSubscribe to 33rd Square