With new funding, researchers look to decipher brain

Three grants of more than $10 million will allow scientists at the U to study brain development.

by Keaton Schmitt

New funding, aided by sophisticated MRI technology, will help scientists better understand how the brain develops from infancy to adulthood.

Three grants totaling more than $10 million — the most recent of which was bestowed on Wednesday — were awarded to three University of Minnesota-affiliated projects working to chart brain connections in different stages of life.

Before the advancement of scanning technology such as MRI, research into the brain was extremely difficult, said University neurologist Scott Cooper.

“It was an unbelievably slow, painful process mapping [brain] connections,” Cooper said. “A single human brain is a more complex network than the entire internet and each brain is different.”

Now researchers are able to piece together neurological changes by scanning the brains of people in different age groups.

“We’re able to get what normally would’ve been something you only do in a college kid, where you can scan them for hours … We’re able to do it across many different populations,” he said.

The three projects fall under the umbrella of the Human Connectome Project, which previously mapped the brains of healthy, college-aged people, said Essa Yacoub, a Minnesota radiology professor and a project lead.

The researchers use two different imaging types to map out the brain, he said.

One technique follows oxygenated blood in the brain to show which parts of the brain are working together while another technique measures the spread of water in the brain, which shows researchers how the brain is wired. By comparing these two types of measurements, the team can interpret the brain’s functions.

With the new grants, researchers are looking to explore the brains of younger subjects.

The Baby Connectome Project — part of the HCP — will study how the structures of children’s brains relate to their behavior over time, said Jed Elison, assistant professor in the University’s Institute of Child Development and a project lead.

The BCP will study several behaviors of children including language capacity, a child’s ability to control focus and the regulation of emotions. All of those areas are important factors in predicting how prepared a child is for school, Elison said.

“We’re going to be establishing a baseline for typical … brain development to better understand … abnormal development,” he said.

Another group will be tracking the development of the brain from childhood to adolescence, said Kathleen Thomas, an ICD professor and a project lead.

The group will look at more than 1,000 subjects from five to 21 years old and study factors such as hormone levels in an attempt to track normal brain development.

“Many of us have been studying developmental brain science,” Thomas said. “But in most of my studies, I’m only able to look at a very small sample … [I’ve never had] the opportunity to look at 1,300 individuals across this whole age span.”

Thomas said brain structure, changing hormones and individual personality could all contribute to differences in memory and concentration.