MGH Development Office (February 26, 2014): Mass General Brain Mapping Reveals Pathways of Human Thought

Publication Date: 
Tue, 02/25/2014

Using a little creativity and a lot of new technology, Mass General researchers have created a new generation of brain mapping images that promises to open the door to understanding and treating brain disorders.

The dazzling, rainbow-colored images, created in Mass General’s Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging , reveal, for the first time, the living human brain’s pathways and connections. Sometimes referred to as “Connectome,” the brain mapping pictures are appearing on magazine covers and web pages from National Geographic (February, 2014) to Wikipedia. The breakthrough technology behind the brain mapping images is what Mass General’s Director of Connectomics Van Wedeen, MD, describes as “like an MRI scanner only four times more powerful.”

That modest description of the brain mapping technique, however, fails to capture the mind-bending engineering, radiology and computer science that Dr. Wedeen and his colleagues have combined to turn the wiggling water molecules in brain cells into highly-rendered images of the brain’s intricate communications network—a technique called diffusion tractography. Even more startling, Dr. Wedeen says, is that the brain’s circuits appear to be arranged in a grid-like structure, almost like a 3-D city map of crisscrossing streets. The layout is remarkably “similar to the rectangular modules on a computer chip,” Dr. Wedeen explains.

“We think the key to making progress in a variety of neurological and psychiatric disorders is understanding these connections,” says Bruce Rosen, MD, PhD, director of the Martinos Center. “All of medicine is fundamentally built on anatomy,” he adds.  “If you’re going to treat heart disease, for example, you need to know the anatomy of the heart. But we don’t yet know the anatomy of the brain. Connectomics—the mapping of the connections in the brain—will help to get us where we need to be.”

It wasn’t long ago that the living human brain was regarded as a “black box” which could not be observed without opening the skull. But in the 1980s, Dr. Rosen and his colleagues pioneered what came to be known as functional MRI (fMRI), creating the now familiar, colorful images of the functional areas of the brain. Those fMRI pictures helped scientists assemble a type of brain map by identifying which part of the brain activates when someone speaks, laughs, feels pain, recognizes a face or does any of hundreds of activities a person can do while lying in an fMRI scanner. But while fMRI can identify areas of the brain and their functions, it cannot reveal the connections by which one part of the brain communicates with another.