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[evol-psych] Graduate Student Develops Software Program to Improve Mapping of Brain Functions

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  • Ian Pitchford
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 1, 2000

      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."

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