March 16th marks the start of the 20th annual Brain Awareness Week, a global campaign to increase public awareness of the progress and benefits of neuroscience research. Brain Awareness Week was created by the Dana Foundation and presents an opportunity to bring attention to brain science advances and advocate for science funding. Brain Awareness Week serves as a launching point for year-round Brain Awareness activities.
At age 24, a woman in China received an MRI for the first time in her life. She was given this brain scan for the same reason most people are given brain scans: something was wrong inside her head and she didn’t know what. Sure, she had dealt with some peculiarities over the course of her life — she didn’t speak until she was six, she needed assistance to walk, her voice tended to tremble, but now she was suffering from vertigo and nausea that had begun to severely impact her life. None of these symptoms, however, prepared the doctors for what they were about to see.
The cerebellum is the small, pear-sized “little brain” that rests just above the brainstem and is largely responsible for motor coordination. People who are born without this structure are exceedingly rare; this woman is only the ninth known case. Although most people are not missing an entire chunk of their brain, this story illustrates something key about the human brain: no one knows what it looks like until they check.
Each brain is unique; they all don’t look like the prototypical image seen in textbooks. The shapes and structures of the human brain are as varied as the shapes and structures of the human face.
“They come in all shapes and sizes,” says Mark Vignone, the MRI technician at the University of Pittsburgh, who has been performing brain scans for over 25 years. “It’s like opening a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get.”
Scientists who are attempting to unlock the mysteries of the human brain must account for this inherent variability in brain shape. Determining how the brain responds to chocolate boxes for example, is not as simple as looking at a computer screen and noting which brain regions activate. Multiple brains must be analyzed in order to guarantee that the effect is not simply noise, or a meaningless peak in activity. Before brains can be compared to other brains, they must first be pulled, tugged and twisted into set templates, a process known as normalization. Some templates are based on the brain of a single person (e.g., the Talaraich atlas) whereas others are an amalgam of dozens or even of hundreds brains (e.g., the MNI atlas). These templates allow researchers to make statistically solid conclusions about which brain regions are typically engaged during a task.
Some studies take advantage of these inter-brain differences. Voxel-based morphometry is a brain imaging technique that involves measuring the amount of gray matter in two separate populations. For instance, studies in voxel-based morphometry have revealed distinct differences between the volume of the temporal lobe in patients with schizophrenia compared with neurotypical individuals. Voxel-based morphometry has also revealed significant structural differences between men and women, older adults and younger adults and people who meditate and people who do not, to name a few examples. Discovering minute – or not so minute – distinctions between populations will be one way in which brain imaging will drive experts’ understanding of the human brain.
These slight differences in neural structure might also be the reason why two people might respond differently to the same psychiatric medicine. For instance, antidepressants are largely capable of reducing symptoms in people with depression, yet some patients have little success with their first medication and must instead try many more medications before finding a successful treatment. This trial and error process is all too common and can be particularly rough on a person who is suffering from mental illness. Scientists have yet to figure out why certain patients respond to one medication and not another, but it undeniably has something to do with the unique structure of each individual’s brain. Determining how to correspond each patient with individualized therapy, or personalized medicine, is the future of psychiatric treatment.
Sovereign Health Group understands that individual brains require individualized treatment. It is for this reason that Sovereign is at the forefront of dual diagnosis treatment. Sovereign also makes sure to care for each patient’s brain wellness through programs such as neurofeedback and cognitive testing. For further questions, please call 866-554-5504.
Written by Courtney Lopresti, Sovereign Health Group writer