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UCLA Perspectives on Neuroimaging the Brain: Dr. Arthur Toga

June 1, 2011

Neuroimaging labs around the world use multi-disciplinary approaches to the brain to delve into the mysteries of thought, behaviour, creativity, intelligence, and illness. At UCLA, LONI, the Laboratory of Neuroimaging, employs an interdisciplinary crew to visualize cutting edge research. Impressed by their research and methods, I seized the opportunity to visit this lab. Fortunately, I was able to meet some of the clever minds that either work in this lab or in brain research areas at UCLA. This article reviews some of Dr. Arthur Toga’s work. The work of Dr. Robert Bilder, Dr. George Bartzokis, and researcher Eileen Luders, will be reviewed in separate articles.

Dr. Arthur Toga

LONI evolved under the direction of Dr. Arthur Toga. Dr. Toga is a neurologist who also is proficient in visualizing the brain. In 1983, he started a small research laboratory with a software designer and a visualizer at the Washington University School of Medicine at St. Louis. In 1987, the lab moved to UCLA, and has now grown to include 123 people. LONI is one of the United States foremost neurological research centers. To give you an idea of the determination and energy behind this lab, in 2009 Dr. Toga submitted 31 proposals for stimulus funding, contributing to record-breaking funding for research at UCLA for that year (the photo above is from the UCLA Today article on this topic).

Entering the lab requires special permission. Inside, visitors wait in a beautifully-designed antechamber on a high-backed elegant couch. Mounted on the wall opposite the seat is a screen with moving text, stating upcoming lectures and talks for professional development. A soft light enclosed in scalloped translucent material overhead smoothly changes colours over time.

Inside the lab is a large computer data storage area, a central hub where researchers’ desks wind through the space, and separate rooms for computer software designers, animators, and visualizers to work. Animating research data has become a cost-center for the lab given the expertise that has developed in the LONI environment. Entrance to the immersive DIVE environment is marked by an artistic arrangement of circuit boards designed by Dr. Toga. Along the walls are mounted framed award-winning covers to journals that visualizers at LONI have created. The lab is well-steeped in a sophisticated blend of knowledge and creativity.

Dr. Arthur Toga is a Principle Investigator of the Human Connectome Project. An ambitious project in his own words, the HCP aims to document and accumulate the white matter tracts and associated function of normal brains in a single interactive database: “The Human Connectome Project aims to provide an unparalleled compilation of neural data, an interface to graphically navigate this data and the opportunity to achieve never before realized conclusions about the living human brain.” (quote from the website). The endeavour is supported by the NIMH  and other NIH leading institutes, with collaboration between researchers in technology, neurology, radiology, genetics, among other fields. Currently, these researchers are collaborating between centers at UCLA, the Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging at Harvard, Massachusetts General Hospital, Washington University, and the University of Minnesota.

In the interview with Dr. Toga, we discussed the possibilities and limitations of neuroimaging. Given ongoing advances in technology, increasing levels of detail can be seen in the human brain. It is exciting to live in a time when such neuroanatomical detail can be seen in vivo. However, the limitations of the technology include a limited level of accuracy. For example, we can now see the circuitry of the brain, visualizing the white matter tracts that move between various gray matter areas of the brain. DTI, or Diffusion Tensor Imaging, allows for visualization of the white matter tracts, or fibres, running between functional areas of the brain. In a simplified explanation, DTI uses the properties of the diffusion of water, calculating the direct in which water diffuses most easily, and thus predicting the likelihood of an axon direction in a specific area in space, or voxel. The latest in technology, DSI, or Diffusion Spectrum Imaging, allows for imaging of multiple fibre orientations within a voxel (Weeden et al, 2008, Neuroimage). Despite these advances, the imaging is based on the diffusion of water rather than detection of the actual limits of the tracts, and thus, remains an estimation.

Furthermore, while it would be fascinating to link neuroanatomy to behaviour and character traits, the associations are challenging to research. This transdisciplinary area of research is called phenomics. Phenomics explores the possible correlation between behaviour, neuroanatomy, and genetics. Currently, phenomics aims to detail neuropsychiatric syndromes with a view to contribute to a more personalized medicine that can increase the accuracy, rationale, and speed, of both diagnosis and treatment for brain illness.

While some people remain concerned that neuropsychiatric anatomical correlation could lead to restricted opportunity for individuals secondary to labeling of character and personality, the fact remains that the brain is always changing, and that the science is consistently limited by the boundaries of technology and generalization. Dr. Toga was clear that the concerns of a pigeon-holing of personality and intelligence is far beyond the reaches of current diagnostic accuracy. Additionally, given the data to date, individual variation will continue to be recognized. Individual variation is not confined only to anatomical variation, as anatomy is also subject to the processes of epigenetics and neuroplasticity.

In fact, through phenomics, an individual may be able to know how to prevent neuropsychiatric illness in a manner specific to that individual’s physical make-up. Furthermore, the potential to appropriately optimize intellectual and creative abilities may be more clearly elucidated and therefore accessible. From my perspective as a psychiatric resident, the possibility to lend more objective reasoning to the vague areas of psychiatric diagnosis that currently exist, and thus to more speedily assess and treat a person’s illness, is hopeful and exciting.

A specific fascinating area that we discussed, is the controversial area of intelligence, and potential neuroanatomical correlates of intelligence. The benefits of understanding the neuroanatomical correlates could lead to an understanding of how to develop and maximize an individual’s intelligence. Also, there is an advantage to tailoring expectations appropriate to to an individual’s level, to decrease anxiety and increase feelings of competence. To read a review on this topic, see Luders et al, 2009, Intelligence.

In summary, the opportunity to talk with one of the leaders of cutting edge neuroscience research in our time, was inspiring. LONI’s blend of artistic and scientific knowledge and methods is enabling human imagination and scientific inquiry to reach new levels of exploration. Potentially, this interdisciplinary approach to researching the human brain will lead to advances in medicine and understanding that will lead to optimal neuropsychiatric health and maximized intelligence potential in the future.

~ ML

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