Dreaming big: UK mapping project 5,000 brain scans closer to 100,000 goal

The brains of thousands of people are available for viewing through the UK Biobank Imaging project, reported Scientific American.

The project’s ultimate goal is to map out brain characteristics of 100,000 people using MRI scans, and then to match those brains with demographics and health data from the people whose heads they are in. The info can be matched to find correlations between lifestyles, health conditions, demographic info, gene analysis and brain images.

The researchers said they hope the information will help them understand the connections between different aspects of health and how they can affect the brain—before anyone even notices a problem.

“The idea is, we’re characterizing people in great detail before they actually have begun to accumulate the health problems that people have in old age,” study author Karla Miller told the magazine. "What we’re aiming to do is get a glimpse of the various kinds of markers that we might be able to identify that then presage problems later on."

The study captures six different kinds of MRI scans for each participant, performed at three different imaging centers.

The researchers have already noticed connections between certain brain characteristics and other personal information, such as an increase in iron deposits in the brain and alcohol consumption and injury to brain connections.

Further discoveries could appear as more of the final 100,000 scans are completed and as more information about the existing participants emerges with age. Check out Scientific American to see more about how else a population-level study such as this one could be useful.