World’s most detailed scan of the brain’s internal wiring produced

The world’s most detailed scan of the brain’s internal wiring has been produced by scientists at Cardiff University (BBC News, 2017).

The MRI scan reveals the fibres which carry all the brain’s thought processes. It has been done in Cardiff, Nottingham, Cambridge and Stockport, as well as London, England and London, Ontario. The scans also involved colleagues in Germany and the US. Doctors hope it will help increase understanding of a range of neurological disorders and could be used instead of invasive biopsies.

The scans, which in Cardiff were carried out at the Cardiff University Brain Research Imaging Centre (CUBRIC), show fibres in white matter called axons. These are the brain’s wiring, which carry billions of electrical signals.

Conventional scans clearly show lesions, areas of damage, in the brain of MS patients. But this advanced scan, showing axonal density, can help explain how the lesions affect motor and cognitive pathways, which can trigger movement problems and extreme fatigue.

Professor Derek Jones, CUBRIC’s director, said it was like someone getting hold of the Hubble telescope when they’ve been using binoculars. He said “The promise for researchers is that we can start to look at structure and function together for the first time.”

The extraordinary images produced in Cardiff are the result of a special MRI scanner, one of only three in the world. The scanner itself is not especially powerful, but its ability to vary its magnetic field rapidly with position means the scientists can map the wires, the axons, so thinly it would take fifty of them to match the thickness of a human hair. The scanner is being used for research into many neurological conditions including MS, schizophrenia, dementia and epilepsy.

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