BRAIN MAPPING: AN OVERVIEW- BY ANGELICA BOTTARO – MEDICAL RESEARCHER & WRITER

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Losing a battle with your brain? There may be a map for that

We as humans use our brains to understand, well, our brains—and as it’s the most complex of all computing systems, it’s not easy.

Even with all that power we still have a long way to go before we can proudly say we ‘know it all’ but with recent advances in brain mapping, an older technology gaining new ground, scientists are closer than ever in reaching the threshold of understanding what causes the brain to tick.

Things like epilepsy, mental illness, and degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and MS have somewhat baffled doctors and scientists because of the fact that their causes have been mysterious and for the most part unpreventable. We can treat those diseases with medications and sometimes surgeries but for the most part we can throw some remedy at it and manage what we can with no cure for the cause. With brain mapping on the rise and its ability to get a deeper look into the brain, with an image data at 125 thousand times better than the MRI scan, being able to correlate the structure to function has never been easier thus getting closer to finding out what exactly happens to the brain when these diseases take over.

So what is brain mapping? The condescending answer would be to say that it’s a set of different technologies that map the brain but that would explain nothing. Brain mapping, in layman’s terms, is a set of different types of scans and measurable tests that are done on the brain to test the form, size, shape and function of the brain that are taken in different forms for different conditions all in the desire to map the uniqueness of ones brain condition. Each and every brain is virtually the same, yes, but unique to the point where each part of the brain that controls things like vision, speech and movement can differ slightly from person to person so it can get right down and accurate as opposed to previous methods. This is to avoid any complications during surgeries for finding out which part of the brain is causing the condition so that doctors can remove those parts without removing anything important.

Brain Mapping for Different Conditions

Different conditions need different styles of brain mapping. For example, if the person happens to be suffering from epilepsy they would most likely opt for Extraoperative Brain Mapping. This is a two- step procedure that is done when the patient’s skull is removed and electrodes are then placed directly onto the brain. The skull is then replaced and the patient is left to roam the hospital for a few days as the electrodes monitor the brain activity. It sounds terrifying but the data it collects is as useful and meaningful as it gets. After enough data is collected the skull is then removed and if surgery is necessary the part of the brain causing the seizures will be removed at the same time as the electrodes.

If a tumor is found to be the culprit a procedure called Intraoperative Brain Mapping will be done. It is a one-step process when the skull is removed and electrodes are placed onto the conscious patient’s brain during surgery. The doctor will then pass currents through the electrodes over certain areas to determine what part of the brain controls what part of the body. This is to allow them to know what tissue can be safely removed without affecting speech, movement, mobility etc. This is an interesting technique because the patient is awake during the entire time so they may belt out in a laugh one minute and have no idea why the next. It’s like mind control except the evil scientist pulling the strings is actually a caring doctor trying to change your life.

For conditions such as mental illness something a little less invasive can be done. Mental illness is tricky but with QEEG (Quantitative Electoencephalography) technology it is easily diagnosed. A cap with a set of electrodes are placed around the cerebral cortex area of the brain and digital technology called the Brain Computer Interface analyzed the electrical activity (brainwaves) to determine the beta brainwave pace and how they measure. If they are faster than average the patient likely has measurable anxiety. This doesn’t allow doctors to find the cause of the illness but when the exact location of the faster brainwaves is pinpointed they will have a better idea of the origin in the brain in which they come from. This will allow them to get in and change those brainwaves to the point where they can remain changed, thus treating the mental illness without the use of medications.

Although brain mapping hasn’t done much in the way of identifying where degenerative diseases originate from it has helped identify previously unknown genes that are linked to certain diseases like Parkinson’s and Huntington’s. This is a major breakthrough because it gives scientists a new hope in studying the conditions and one step closer in finding out what causes them and even possibly a way to slow them down. With brain mappings ability to obtain a closer look inside the structure and formation into the brain it is easier for doctors to be able to use Tensor Based Morphometry (TBM) which was previously impossible unless in autopsy like situations. TBM has now been used to map brain changes over time so that doctors can track the changes of the brain that cause degeneration in diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia. The purpose of tracking these changes through mapping is to see how quickly the process speeds up, how the neurons ‘die’, and if it is the same in every patient or if it varies person to person as the same in languages and movement locations.

Proof from the Barrow Neurological Institute at Phoenix Children’s Hospital

Derek was a normal baby until four days before his first birthday when everything changed. He had his first seizure. After being tested for the worse and eventually diagnosed with febrile seizures he was sent home in the hopes that it would not happen again. Unfortunately, that was not the case.

For the first 6 years of his life he would be diagnosed with complex partial seizures and put on over twelve different medications. A set of medications had controlled his seizures and when he was weaned off them in the hopes that he had grown out of his condition he was lucky enough to be seizure free until he hit puberty at age eleven. Back on the medication he went and the seizures, although controlled, showed up about every 6 months.

An unfortunate accident with a golf ball at the age of thirteen may or may not be the culprit to upping his seizure activity from every 6 months to every 2 or 3 and there was no hope in sight. Several tests found scar tissue on his left temporal lobe and some abnormalities on the left side of his brain.

When the seizures increased and the tests came back with abnormalities the doctors suggested brain mapping and surgery to identify right down to a T where in Derek’s brain the seizures were coming from and hopefully what part of the brain they could remove so that he could finally be rid of the condition that had caused him so much strife during his short life. The electrodes remained on Derek’s brain for four days and in that time he had several seizures and complications with medications. But, alas, the information needed was achieved and he went into surgery with all the data the doctors needed to remove the part of his brain causing his epilepsy.

After recovery and some vestibular and physical therapy Derek is now completely seizure free. He is a able to drive and do better in school and has even participated in Boy Scouts. He is a normal teenager thanks to brain mapping and that in itself is proof that this technology not only works, but can continue to improve the quality of life for all different kinds of sufferers of brain conditions.

Conclusion

Brain mapping may just be getting its feet off the ground in terms of making a real difference in the lives of people everywhere but with technological advances around the world, it’s only a matter of time before the ability to use the brain to fully understand the brain is a thing of the now. New projects are popping up everywhere and doctors and scientists alike are, for the most part, hopeful for the new age ability to dig deeper into what makes us, what breaks us, and what we can learn about the two.