University of Minnesota researchers celebrated when their expertise in high-tech medical imaging led to the first detailed mapping of the functions and neural activities of brains in ordinary middle-aged adults.
Studies based on that imaging data from the Human Connectome Project have shown how common patterns of neural activity can predict adults’ IQ, education levels and addiction risks — but also how unique patterns can be like fingerprints for individuals.
But it was only the first step. In the past year, the university and collaborators across the country have launched three new Connectome studies to map out brain patterns in babies, in children ages 5 to 21, and in older adults.
“The idea … is to add to this database of healthy adults so we could identify what, say, healthy development looks like or what healthy aging looks like,” said Essa Yacoub, a U professor who has been involved with the Connectome project from the start and is leading the new study of brain activity in school-aged children and young adults.
The university has three years under a federal contract to recruit thousands of volunteers and conduct imaging scans of them over time.
In addition to the scans, Yacoub’s study of children and young adults will monitor participants for changes in mood, behavior and intellect over time to see how they correlate with brain patterns.
The results of all three will be published and serve as a baseline by which researchers can then study brain disorders.
“You’re looking for variations in connectivity or how the brain circuitry is altered in [people with] diseases,” Yacoub said.
Some of those studies already are underway. U psychiatry professor Scott Sponheim, for example, is gathering imaging scans of 150 people with schizophrenia and 150 people without the disorder to unlock clues about why it causes visual hallucinations.
The U was chosen as a leader of the Connectome project because of its Center for Magnetic Resonance Research, which houses some of the world’s most powerful imaging devices. Its scientists also have been providing technical guidance and studying ways for scans to gather more study data in less time.
Yacoub said they also have been studying practical solutions for imaging dilemmas, such as how to get accurate scans of healthy children.
“They’re squirmy, they’re impatient, they climb out of the scanner,” Yacoub said.
Ideas have included acclimating children to the scanner noise so they aren’t scared and outfitting scanners with cribs so that babies can be transferred to them while sleeping.