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Zack Lynch is author of The Neuro Revolution: How Brain Science Is Changing Our World (St. Martin's Press, July 2009).
He is the founder and executive director of the Neurotechnology Industry Organization (NIO) and co-founder of NeuroInsights. He serves on the advisory boards of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT, the Center for Neuroeconomic Studies, Science Progress, and SocialText, a social software company. Please send newsworthy items or feedback - to Zack Lynch.
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Brain Waves

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November 3, 2003

The Brainy Scientist

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Posted by Zack Lynch

This week's "The Scientist" contains several relevant articles for neurotechnology.

Here are the highlights:

1. Numbers on the Brain breaks down the public and private funding initiatives supporting the $60B neuroscience/pharmacology market.

2. Cutting Neurons Down to Size details the latest research into how and why connections among neurons go through a process of self-pruning in early child development. Neuroscientists have known about neural pruning for decades, where synaptic density peaks from ages 1 to 2, declines until age 16, and then levels off. Experts predict that sorting out how pruning works might eventually help in understanding epilepsy, neurodegenerative diseases, mental retardation, autism, and schizophrenia.

3. fMRI The Perfect Imperfect Instrument covers how most investigators rely on the fMRI method that uses a blood oxygenation level-dependent (BOLD) contrast. The signal arises from changes in magnetic characteristics of blood related to differences in the relative amounts of oxygenated and deoxygenated hemoglobin. Though many researchers correlate blood flow to neural activity, the connection hasn't been solidly determined.

4. Caution: Brain Working further deconstructs fMRI. This has important implications for cognitive related experiments that depend on fMRI. fMRI suffers from poor temporal resolution which means it is impossible to segregate the different stages of how during conversions words and their meaning are differentiated. For this reason, language experts like Peter Hagoort use fMRI in combination with electroencephalography (EEG) and magnetoencephalography (MEG) in his efforts to identify those stages.

5. It's Neuron's Time describes how scientists are taking the first stabs at answering at least one part of the question, how the brain perceives time. A recent University of Washington study was the first to document how neurons in primates track time from one instant to the next. Timing is a subject of increasing interest, because it's important in learning. Learning skilled movements, for instance, involves internalizing their sequences and timing.

The Take Away: All these articles show that we are suffering from a brain imaging bottleneck.

Peter Hagoort's quote sums it up nicely, "Many neuroscientists dream of a "more perfect" instrument, one that will combine the spatial sensitivity of fMRI with the millisecond temporal acuity of EEG or MEG, but it is difficult to predict what such an already rapidly changing technology will look like in 10 or 20 years."

That timing seems just about right to me.

Comments (2) | Category: Neurodiagnostics


1. Chris Furmanski on November 4, 2003 3:55 AM writes...

The Scientist is right that fMRI is far from perfect, but I'm afraid the Scientist has it wrong about the temporal issues. fMRI, in the right hands, can temporally resolve items

Also, see my blog about other fmri bottlenecks:

There's also been some good work relating fMRI and neural activity: e.g., :

(though see: )

I think one of the major problems is that cutting edge fMRI techniques are not properly getting in the hands of the masses (of researchers). fMRI is now suffering from a misguided over-proliferation that has too commonly led to poor interpretations of misunderstood results--- much like what happened to neural nets in the 80's.

At first, everyone thought both would change world, entire departments sprung up overnight, and then masses of work were done by people that shouldn't have been doing it in the first place, and the popular image of the technique was needlessly tarnished...

I'm not blindly defending fMRI... in fact, I am very critical of the field. But people must keep in mind fMRI can't do everything--- however, a majority of its failings are in areas where people try to extend the tool into domains where fMRI shouldn't be used... one wouldn't want to use a dump truck in a drag race...

I'll try to tackle some of this in a blog later this week....

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