A second gap is personal. Imaging studies — which for decades have revealed the brain regions behind our behaviors, appetites and mental disorders — have tended to lump together scans from a bunch of people, in the process overlooking individual cerebral variations. Studies have also largely assumed that measuring someone’s brain function at a point in time is generally representative of that person’s daily function at that point in life.
That notion appears way off the mark, though, for people diagnosed with specific psychiatric disorders. For example, those with schizophrenia may end up in weeks-long active phases of disease, experiencing hallucinations, delusions, even full-blown psychosis. Depression and bipolar disorder are other conditions that flare, then dissipate as the brain returns to an even keel.
To open up new roads into treating these and other diseases, MyConnectome and studies like it are capturing a normal brain’s ebbs and flows. The approach should help make personalized medicine possible, tailored to each patient’s unique neural wiring diagram, or connectome.
“If we want to understand fluctuations in disease, the first thing we need to do is to understand how a healthy person’s brain function fluctuates,” says Poldrack.
Taking the Plunge
Logistical roadblocks have long stymied the collection of brain-and-body fluctuations. What healthy person would want to report to a lab for frequent MRIs and jabs? And who would pay for the procedures?
Those objections became moot for Poldrack several years ago, while at the University of Texas at Austin. A friend involved in the Quantified Self, a movement embracing technology for self-tracking, finally convinced him.
“My friend was goading me,” says Poldrack. “She said, ‘You’ve got an MRI scanner in your basement. You’ve got to get in there!’ ” (Poldrack’s lab still had to pay for scans, but at an early-bird, pre-8 a.m. rate of $150 a go.)