Be part of our big brain experiment!

Do you want to know how the brain works? I know I do. That’s part of the reason I became a neurologist and it’s a question I ask myself every day.

What happens when I smell a flower, when I listen to music, when I try to speak German?

In Cambridge I am working with two colleagues – Saber Sami a brain imaging neuroscientist, and James Murray-White a professional film-maker. Together we are bringing together science and the creative arts to record a special kind of brain experiment. We are inviting you to help answer your own questions in the MEG and Me project. Over the next few months we will be using a new brain scanning technique called magnetoencephalography (MEG) to look at dynamic processes of the brain. We will record the experiment as it happens through a series of online films and present the findings to an audience at the Cambridge Science Festival in March.

Cognition and the brain

There are a wealth of brain functions that require ‘thought’ called cognitive processes. These cognitive processes range from the simple things such as how we move our legs or the speed that we breath, through to abstract and complex functions such as how we appreciate art or understand language. As a dementia researcher, the first stage of understanding how a disease such as Alzheimer’s changes the brain is to work out what the brain does in people without Alzheimer’s.

One way we can understand cognitive processes in the brain is to use brain imaging. Over the years brain imaging has revealed the structure of the brain and how different parts of the brain are more or less active depending on what the brain is doing. Newer brain imaging techniques consider dynamic brain activity, such as magnetoencephalography (MEG).

To understand what dynamic brain processes are, let us consider a train station. You could take a picture of a train station and count the number of platforms which is like looking at the structure of the brain. Next you could count the number of passengers on the platforms at rush hour, which would be like measuring brain activity. Even better, you could take a video of passengers milling in and out of the platform and on to the trains. This would be like measuring dynamic brain processes.

Brain scanning with MEG

Magnetoencephalography – or MEG for short – works by measuring small magnetic signals that the brain produces when it is active. The magnetic signals from the brain are about 1 millionth the size of the earth’s magnetic field, so the machine is kept in a lead-lined room and uses special detectors called SQUIDs to pick up these tiny signals. One big advantage of MEG is that it works very quickly, measuring the brain’s signal hundreds of times per second. We can analyse the stream of data coming from the MEG measurements to look for patterns of dynamic brain activity.

MEG has been used to study dementia, and there are several important research projects ongoing with MEG in Cambridge and other centres. These studies are helping us to understand how the dynamic brain activity changes in Alzheimer’s disease. In this way MEG can help us to understand why affected brain areas cause cognitive problems, such as memory problems. MEG may also be able to provide a measure of the disease that can be used to test new treatments.

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About the author

Tim Rittman

Tim Rittman is a neurology registrar and dementia researcher based at Addenbrookes hospital Cambridge and the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital. His research tries to understand how dementia affects the brain dementia by examining brain networks using advanced brain imaging techniques.