Much like particle physics has particle accelerators such as the Large Hadron Collider at CERN and the Tevatron at Fermilab, neuroscience has MRI. All are high energy systems designed to induce and detect sub-atomic reactions. They also all require significantly complex mathematical tricks to discern useful information.
Increasingly more powerful magnets have enhanced the sensitivity of MRI and has called for new methods of analysis to learn about the structure of the brain. Voxel based morphemetry(VBM) is an analysis method which uses MRI to measure the volumes of gray and white matter structures in a living brain. I first encountered it while searching through the literature on the differences between typical male and female brain structure. It has also been used to recognize abnormalities for individuals with autistic spectrum disorders and should prove useful in determining the relationship between mental performance and structure of the brain.
On Monday, it was announced that a newer method, diffusion spectrum imaging (DSI), had been used to track white matter connections between different regions of gray matter in the cortex of the brain in five right handed male subjects. This finding supports work published two years ago in Brain and the theory of Antonio Damasio. A little studied region of the brain, the precuneus is implicated by Damasio as being a key player in consciousness and was the most widely connected part of the cortex in this latest DSI experiment. The notion is that an area key to consciousness would have to be connected to a wide swathe of cortex.
While these first looks at what DSI can reveal are exciting, it is only a glimpse. The study was done on a group of five right handed males who were instructed to stay alert with their eyes closed. The imaging was not functional in that results were averaged over a period of time where there might be considerable fluctuations. I look forward to the fruits of DSI analysis as MRI technology improves and more extensive studies are conducted. Not only does it have the potential to pinpoint important structures involved in consciousness, it also will be useful in understanding higher level reasoning by allowing us to correlate mental performance with the strength of the relationships between regions of the cortex.