Every little thing fMRI does is magic: The unexpected intersection of Sting, neural imaging

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Functional MRI (fMRI), when developed in the early 1990s, was the latest in a long line of imaging modalities that allowed scientists and researchers to use changes in blood oxygenation and flow to infer neural activity. Since the seminal research paper was published by Seiji Ogawa, PhD—then working at AT&T Bell Laboratories—fMRI has provided insight in how the brain forms memories and processes pain, emotion or language.

The Human Connectome Project (HCP), convened under the National Institutes of Health Blueprint for Neuroscience Research, is a $40 million effort to map the neural pathways that underlie human brain function. The combination of fMRI, demographics and behavioral data from more than 1,000 normal and diseased subjects has resulted in the highest resolution neural map to date, but the real potential of the HCP is as a tool for future research, according to David Van Essen, PhD, principal investigator of the HCP.

However, these once-in-a-lifetime projects aren’t the only effective uses of fMRI. Smaller-scale endeavors have revealed the brain processes computer programming in a similar manner to foreign language, leading to some states, including Kentucky, allowing programming classes to fulfill foreign language requirements in schools.

In an idiosyncratic example, the musician Sting—formerly of the Police—underwent an fMRI scan while listening to a variety of music across genres. While the jokes almost write themselves (my personal favorite is “Don’t Scan So Close To Me”), the exam showed his brain made connections between pieces of music the researchers had never before seen as related. Similar brain activity was recorded during the Beatles’ song “Girl” and Astor Piazzolla’s “Libertango," attributed to similar three-note sections and both track’s minor keys.

While I’m sure the researchers and technicians were thrilled to have Sting in the lab, fMRI studies of non-rock stars listening to music have produced more clinically relevant findings. In particular, some studies have associated improved cognitive function when Alzheimer’s patients are consistently exposed to music. Music or meditation can even help adults with subjective cognitive decline, a strong predictor of Alzheimer’s disease. These findings have made their way into real-world care giving: The Alzheimer’s Association recommends live music and music-making as ways to improve memory recall and social interaction and to provide a sense of control over one’s life.

fMRI is a fascinating tool with widespread application, beyond those for the hardcore imaging and radiology crowd. Psychologists and behaviorists can connect neural activity to behavior like never before, opening up a treasure trove of possibility.

Oh, and I thought of one more: “Message In a Dipole.”