Brainbows and the Hungry Brain

When you look at an image of the brain, it is hard to imagine that such an alien-looking form no bigger than a cantaloupe facilitates our breathing, moving, and even our ability to contemplate difficult philosophical questions like “chocolate or vanilla?” I am fascinated by the extensive and incredibly efficient communication network I have underneath my skull.

Brain imaging is starting to tell us more about the various brain areas and how they communicate with one another to accomplish tasks from picking up a pencil to processing complex calculus. I hadn’t thought of it as an eating machine, though, until I heard about a lecture entitled “Imaging the Hungry Brain.” I had to find out what that meant, so on Monday night I went to the lecture, given by Elizabeth M.C. Hillman of Columbia, hosted by that university’s neuroscience department and the Mind Brain Behavior Initiative and sponsored by the Dana Foundation.

Hillman is a professor in biomedical engineering and radiology and director of the Laboratory for Functional Optical Imaging. She is a perfect blend of an engineer and a brain enthusiast. After listening to her enthusiasm and excitement about the future of brain imaging, I couldn’t help but be excited myself.

Currently, human brain imaging relies on observing how it consumes energy—as the lecture’s title implied, imaging the hungry brain. Techniques like positron emission tomography (PET) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) allow researchers to view the brain as it eats up glucose and the oxygen in blood. With these scans, we can see which areas of the brain are active or inactive in terms of energy consumption during different activities. But, Hillman pointed out, energy consumption doesn’t tell us everything about the brain.

Hillman’s hope is that imaging can help us figure out how the brain’s energy consumption actually translates into the neural activity. Much of neurovascular control is still a mystery to scientists, she said, and a clearer understanding of it may lead to a greater understanding of many neurological diseases, such as Alzheimer’s.

Hillman sees a bright future ahead for brain imaging, including work she is doing using in-vivo optical imaging, which uses light to detect functional changes in the animal brain.

One of the most exciting brain imaging techniques she discussed is the Brainbow, which uses fluorescent proteins to label each individual neuron a different color. This way, scientists can get a detailed image of individual neurons as they fire during different activities. Hillman described how researchers can use the image provided by the Brainbow to create a 3-D model of the brain’s neurons in action. While such a technique has only been used with animal brains, Hillman said it’s likely to a play a major role in future neuroscience research, including wathing how pharmaceutical drugs affect different brain areas. If we could label a drug in a way similar to the way neurons are labeled with fluorescent proteins, we could follow it through the brain in order understand exactly where it is going and what it is doing, she said.

Brainbow_HippocampusImage courtesy of Jeff Lichtman/Harvard University. See more images here.

The lecture was part of series of speakers from Columbia promoting the forthcoming Jerome L. Greene Science Center in Manhattanville that will host Columbia’s Mind Brain Behavior Initiative. One of the initiative’s goals is to understand the inner workings of the brain and apply that knowledge to improved methods of brain disease prevention and treatment. Scientists like Dr. Hillman, who embody the relationship between neuroscience and engineering, may be key to this process.

The next speaker in the series will be Dana Alliance member Thomas M. Jessell, on Nov. 16 from 6 to 7:30 p.m. at the Carlyle (35 East 76th Street at Madison Avenue). He will be discussing “Measured Motion: The Science and Syndromes of Motor Control.”

–Simon Fischweicher

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