[evol-psych] Graduate Student Develops Software Program to Improve Mapping of Brain Functions
- UF GRADUATE STUDENT DEVELOPS SOFTWARE PROGRAM TO IMPROVE MAPPING OF BRAIN
March 29, 2000
GAINESVILLE, Fla.---Quick: Name three different kinds of birds.
As your mind rattles off eagle, parrot and blue jay, or robin, parakeet and
woodpecker, a portion of your brain's cerebral cortex fires into action. But
exactly where in the brain are thoughts and actions processed? A new software
program developed by University of Florida doctoral student Didem Gökçay with
assistance from doctoral student Cécile Mohr helps researchers pinpoint the
precise components that work together to perform a variety of brain
activities. Eventually, such precision mapping is expected to help make brain
surgery more exact and improve rehabilitation of people with brain disease or
The program, whose development was supported by a grant from the National
Institutes of Health, is called LOFA for localization of functional activity.
It eases the interpretation of functional magnetic resonance images -- scans
that identify changes in blood oxygen levels in the brain as a person
performs specific tasks.
"LOFA really helps us get a better idea of how brain systems are put
together," said Bruce Crosson, a professor of clinical and health psychology
in UF's College of Health Professions who has used the software in his
research. "We've been able to determine the precise locations of brain
structures involved in language initiation. We can see, too, how those
sections fit in with the cognitive, motor and emotional areas of the brain.
"In the long run, that kind of knowledge should help us design better
strategies for rehabilitation following brain injury or disease. And it could
help map a person's brain functions before surgery to avoid areas of cortex
that control important activities," said Crosson, who is affiliated with UF's
multidisciplinary Brain Institute.
Mohr, a doctoral student in UF's medical physics program in the nuclear and
radiological engineering department, said a tool like LOFA is needed because
researchers are now exploring much more subtle questions than in the past.
"We're beyond trying to figure out where the visual, auditory and motor areas
are located in the brain," Mohr said. "Scientists know that. Now we're asking
questions about the connectivity of the brain and trying to find out the
anatomic structures that correlate with functions. For that, we need to be
very precise and LOFA helps us do that."
During the past few years, fMRI has become an increasingly popular research
tool, as scientists worldwide seek a better understanding of what the brain
is doing as it processes information, thinks and controls movement. Standard
MRI scans provide a look at the physical structure of the brain. In contrast,
fMRI scans show areas of brain activity, which can be overlaid on anatomical
pictures to map where the activity is occurring.
But precisely delineating the activity has been difficult because of the
nature of the cerebral cortex, which varies substantially from person to
"The cerebral cortex is a crumpled structure made up of bumps and grooves,"
said Gökçay, a doctoral student in computer and information sciences who
conducted her research at UF's Brain Institute. "Think of frying a piece of
bacon or crumpling a piece of paper. The results will look different each
time. The crumples across brains are not the same, and their shapes and sizes
can be very different as well."
Gökçay audited a brain anatomy class and worked with Crosson and UF
neuroscientist Christiana Leonard so she could better understand the extent
of anatomic variability in the brain.
She said that after studying the structures in the brain, it became clear
that existing software tools provided simplistic methods for handling images
of the brain. The software packages forced users to work with pre-defined
generic shapes or to draw pixel by pixel.
"These approaches either did not capture the richness of the anatomy or made
the task of the user very tedious, if not impossible," Gökçay said.
Gökçay sought to develop a program that would make it easy to trace the sulci
(the grooves of the cortex) because two-thirds of the brain function is
buried within them. She also wanted users to have the option to include
nearby structures in the region they were exploring, because activity in
neighboring sites can offer additional information about function.
Gökçay's program provides researchers with an easy, flexible tool for tracing
sections of the twisting, turning, three-dimensional cortex that is of
interest. The users can delve deep within the grooves of the cortex and
combine results from multiple areas, which is difficult to do with other
"We still have a lot of work to do," Gökçay said. "We want to make LOFA
publicly available. We also hope to move on to bigger projects, like
developing ways to standardize brain anatomy across subjects."