Looking Deeper into Brain Function

Summary: Researchers propose a new approach to neuroimaging studies. They suggest, rather than beginning with predefined behavioral functions and trying to assign associated brain regions, new studies should focus on selecting brain areas first and screen for potential behavioral associations.

Source: Forschungszentrum Jülich.

To uncover connections between brain regions and specific cognitive functions, neuroscientists have long made extensive use of techniques like functional resonance imaging (fMRI). First introduced in the 1990’s, the method allows tracking the brain’s activity while a test subject performs a task or responds to stimuli in the MRI scanner. To date, fMRI has been employed in thousands of studies to determine the “locations” of a wide variety of behavioral functions in the brain. In spite of this, it has proved difficult to understand specific functions and complex interaction of brain areas and networks. For regions like the hippocampus, long lists of associated tasks have been described, but so far, the many individual results have not produced a conclusive picture.

A team of brain imaging researchers from Düsseldorf and Jülich in Germany now propose a new approach. The scientists are contributors to the multinational European Human Brain Project. Key to their idea is a reversal of the current practice: Instead of starting with pre-defined behavioral functions and then trying to assign brain regions, the areas would be selected first and then taken through a wide ranging statistical screening for potential behavioral associations, resulting in a “behavioral profile”. Recently established large data bases of neuroimaging data provide the basis for this new bottom up approach, which, they argue, could help to reveal the “core functions” of brain areas.

“These basic operational functions would be the missing link between behavioral functions described by Psychology and the brain mapping community”, explains first author Sarah Genon, a researcher at University Hospital Düsseldorf and Research Center Jülich in Germany. In the European Human Brain Project, she heads the task Multimodal comparison of whole-brain maps. “Many approaches to the description of human behavior and its dysfunction, not only from the many psychology fields, but also fields like psychiatry, neurology, or economics have produced rich knowledge, but mapping them onto the brain results in a kind of conceptual chaos”, Genon says. A psychologist by training who previously used fMRI to study Alzheimer’s disease, she knows both sides. “It has been difficult for these fields and scientists interested in brain organization to find a common language.”

Basic operational functions of a brain area are not directly observed, but need to be derived from the range of much more complicated behavioral functions with which they are associated. The core “Job” of a brain area is veiled in a multitude of higher order behavioral functions that recruit it. Teasing out these base functions of individual structurally distinct brain areas is a challenge — but the researchers believe that the time is right, as recent advances in statistical methodology and availability of brain imaging data are converging:

Millions of neuroimages have been acquired in more than 20 000 published activation studies with fMRI and PET imaging. NeuroscienceNews.com image is credited to Forschungszentrum Jülich.

“By now many different conditions have been tested in many different people and large databases make the compiled data of tens of thousands of different imaging studies available”, says senior author Simon Eickhoff, head of the area of Brain and Behaviour at the Institute of Neuroscience and Medicine at Forschungszentrum Jülich and the Institute of Systems Neuroscience at University Clinic Düsseldorf. In addition, extensive population samples have been collected by initiatives like the Human Connectome Project, the UK Biobank or the German 1000Brain study, which combine functional and anatomical brain data with anonymized results in various cognitive tests.

With the data from many studies one can begin identifying the basic sub-functions that are dynamically combined into more complex behaviors. “Basically we can now approach the middle level. This has been somewhat in the dark, compared to what is known from measurements about the microscopic level, like the neurophysiology of cells, and the higher functions of complex behavior.” This focus of bridging between the different levels of brain organization is very much in line with the broader goals of the Human Brain Project, Eickhoff explains. With around 500 contributing scientists all over Europe, the project aims to set up a framework to understand the brain’s complexity in a more unified way. The work in functional mapping will be integrated into a web-based 3D-Atlas that can be zoomed through all scales and reflects many different aspects, from genetics, cells and networks all the way up to a regions behavioral involvements.

About this neuroscience research article

Source: Peter Zekert – Forschungszentrum Jülich
Publisher: Organized by NeuroscienceNews.com.
Image Source: NeuroscienceNews.com image is credited to Forschungszentrum Jülich.
Original Research: Open access research for “How to Characterize the Function of a Brain Region” by Sarah Genon, Andrew Reid, Robert Langner, Katrin Amunts, and Simon B. Eickhoff in Trends in Cognitive Sciences. Published online February 28 2018.

Cite This NeuroscienceNews.com Article

[cbtabs][cbtab title=”MLA”]Forschungszentrum Jülich “Looking Deeper into Brain Function.” NeuroscienceNews. NeuroscienceNews, 26 March 2018.
<https://neurosciencenews.com/neuroimaging-brain-function-8690/>.[/cbtab][cbtab title=”APA”]Forschungszentrum Jülich (2018, March 26). Looking Deeper into Brain Function. NeuroscienceNews. Retrieved March 26, 2018 from https://neurosciencenews.com/neuroimaging-brain-function-8690/[/cbtab][cbtab title=”Chicago”]Forschungszentrum Jülich “Looking Deeper into Brain Function.” https://neurosciencenews.com/neuroimaging-brain-function-8690/ (accessed March 26, 2018).[/cbtab][/cbtabs]

How to Characterize the Function of a Brain Region

While it is largely accepted that the brain is topographically organized into distinct areas that are integrated into networks, the unique contribution of each area to behavior is yet to be elucidated.

Diverse lines of research using different approaches have contributed to numerous behavioral associations for any brain area.

Emerging databases of task-based activation data offer the possibility of characterizing the engagement of brain regions across a broad range of experimental behavioral conditions.

New large samples of both imaging and phenotypical data provide an opportunity to complement the activation pattern by examining cross-subject associations between imaging-derived neurobiological markers and ecological behavioral characteristics.

Many brain regions have been defined, but a comprehensive formalization of each region’s function in relation to human behavior is still lacking. Current knowledge comes from various fields, which have diverse conceptions of ‘functions’. We briefly review these fields and outline how the heterogeneity of associations could be harnessed to disclose the computational function of any region. Aggregating activation data from neuroimaging studies allows us to characterize the functional engagement of a region across a range of experimental conditions. Furthermore, large-sample data can disclose covariation between brain region features and ecological behavioral phenotyping. Combining these two approaches opens a new perspective to determine the behavioral associations of a brain region, and hence its function and broader role within large-scale functional networks.

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