SLU Neurosurgeon Scans Brains for Landmark Wiring Map

As a part of a $30 million dollar National Institutes of Health (NIH) initiative to map the human brain, Saint Louis University neurosurgeon Richard Bucholz, M.D. will image the brains of healthy adults with MEG technology, providing key information about brain function.

Richard Bucholz, M.D.

Collaborating with Washington University in St. Louis and the University of Minnesota’s Center for Magnetic Resonance Research, the institutions that lead the Human Connectome project, Bucholz’ team will head up the MEG imaging component of the endeavor as researchers aim to create a map of the pathways of the human brain.

The time is right to attempt this project, Bucholz says, thanks to several factors coming to maturity. Advances in imaging, cloud computing and genetics bring scientists to a point where they can make sense of the enormous amounts of data contained in the human brain.

“This is a fascinating study that could at last offer a better understanding of a brain’s wiring,” said Bucholz, who also is director of the division of neurosurgery at Saint Louis University.

Researchers will study those with healthy brains, including identical twins, to learn how much of our brains’ wiring is formulated by genetics as opposed to the environment.

It is because of imaging like the MEG (magnetoencephalography) and MRI, which have little to no risk to healthy patients, that researchers are able to undertake a major project examining healthy patients.

“Now that we have imaging equipment that offers virtually no risk to healthy individuals, the ability to analyze huge amounts of data with super computers, and a map the human genome, we can start to understand the brain, the most complex structure we have in the universe,” said Bucholz.

Used clinically in only a handful of facilities around the country, the MEG, housed at Saint Louis University Hospital, is a key part of the Human Connectome project, offering data about brain function, rather than structure.

Housed in a chamber that keeps out external magnetic waves, the MEG environment is opposite to the MRI’s. Instead of using magnetic force, the MEG is a magnetically neutral space. Free of outside forces, the MEG picks up the brain’s own magnetic wave activity. When patients are shown sensory images, like a picture, researchers observe which parts of the brain become active and identify the sequence of responses, essentially logging which parts of the brain sequentially react after seeing the image. Researchers distinguish working areas of the brain from low-functioning and abnormal regions. In this way, the MEG measures both brain function and abnormality.

“In the past, head injury has been imaged using structural techniques, like the MRI and CT scan. These images are like a picture of St. Louis at 20,000 feet. We see outlines and highways — geography,” said Bucholz. “But this can’t tell you about the function of St. Louis. It can’t tell you how things are moving down on the ground, like traffic tie ups and slow downs. This is what the MEG can do.”

Researchers hope to learn how much variance there is between normal brains. And, once the roadmap has been developed, they hope to use that information to help those with brain or neurological injuries or illness.

“We are going to learn more about what we are and how we differ. It’s all up for grabs,” said Bucholz. “We’re going to have the methods to demonstrate what trauma, birth defects and genetic issues look like in the brain, and from there, develop therapies to restore normal function.

“Understanding the brain will help us understand the core of what makes us human. There is no area of neurology that this project will not reach.”

Established in 1836, Saint Louis University School of Medicine has the distinction of awarding the first medical degree west of the Mississippi River. The school educates physicians and biomedical scientists, conducts medical research, and provides health care on a local, national and international level. Research at the school seeks new cures and treatments in five key areas: cancer, liver disease, heart/lung disease, aging and brain disease, and infectious disease.

Carrie Bebermeyer