3D imaging technique measures brain behavior during normal human activities

December 15, 2008

University of California, San Diego scientists are developing a new imaging modality that will study the body/brain dynamics of humans engaged in normal activity.

University of California, San Diego scientists are developing a new imaging modality that will study the body/brain dynamics of humans engaged in normal activity.

The Swartz Center for Computational Neuroscience at UCSD is creating the concurrent brain and body imaging modality MoBI (Mobile Brain/Body Imaging) under a four-year, $3.4 million research grant from the U.S. Navy Office of Naval Research.

"Although functional brain imaging has allowed many new insights into human brain function, so far no imaging modality has allowed scientists to study brain dynamics of subjects performing normal activities in a 3D environment," said the principal investigator and Swartz Center director Scott Makeig, Ph.D.

Makeig and colleagues will combine high-density noninvasive electroencephalographic (EEG) recordings with full-body motion-capture recordings to explore the brain dynamics that accompany and support natural human behavior. Activities will include interactions with objects, active agents, and other people.

The researchers will also record activity while volunteers walk and run on treadmills, point and reach, balance and juggle, find routes, gesture, and play games.

"There are basic questions about distributed brain activity supporting navigating in space, 3D orienting to new sources of information in our environment, and, interestingly, about the brain dynamics supporting social interactions, that may be obtained from humans in no other way, since all other brain imaging modalities use heavy sensors that require the subject's head to be held in a rigidly fixed position," he said.

Makeig plans to learn whether brainwave data signal the motivations behind actions. If so, researchers can use MoBI to perform cognitive monitoring of operators in order to improve human-system performances and more.

"If successful, these methods will open up new opportunities to examine brain activity under more natural conditions, outside the artificial confines of the laboratory," said Robert M. Bilder, Ph.D., a professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the University of California, Los Angeles.

MoBI could monitor brain electrical activity important to the study of complex neurological and psychiatric disorders and also normal cognition, he said.

Once viable MoBI systems are available, researchers might be able to routinely monitor the intentions of Alzheimer's patients as well as monitor the cognitive state and responses of military or civilian workers in stressful situations, Makeig said.

"Examination of whole-body motion in natural environments opens opportunities to model behavior in a way that may more closely parallel research currently done on rodents, and thus could facilitate translational science," said Bilder, who is also associated with the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior.

Collaborators on the project include Rafael Nunez, Ph.D., a professor of cognitive science at UCSD, Daniel Ferris, Ph.D., an associate professor at the University of Michigan, Kate Holzbaur, Ph.D., an assistant professor of biomedical engineering at Wake Forest University, and Tzyy-Ping Jung, Ph.D., associate director at the Swartz Center for Computational Neuroscience of UCSD and a professor at the National Chiao-Tung University in Taiwan.

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