In the field of behavioural neuroscience, remarkable developments in neuroimaging techniques have made it possible to study anatomical, functional, and biochemical characteristics of the brain in exquisite detail. For example, structural magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can clearly delineate areas of nerve cells (grey matter) from areas of nerve pathways (white matter).
Diffusion tensor MR imaging (DTI) can provide information about orientations and integrity of nerve fibres. Functional MRI (fMRI) methods are sensitive to metabolic changes in parts of the brain that are activated when you think, feel, or respond. Other methods, such as magnetoencephalography (MEG), measure moment-to-moment changes in electrical activity of the brain, and can show when the critical changes are occurring.
Because of their precision and versatility, these innovative neuroimaging techniques are helpful not only for understanding healthy brain structure and function, but they also are invaluable for studying the extent and the dynamics of changes in the brain caused by disease, trauma, and other disorders. For example, a patient’s brain can be scanned on repeated occasions, allowing clinicians and researchers to track a person’s deterioration or improvement with treatment. Furthermore, brain changes can be correlated with emotional, cognitive, and other behavioural measures taken at the same time.
Marlene Oscar Berman is professor of anatomy and neurobiology, professor of psychiatry and professor of neurology at Boston University School of Medicine, director of the Laboratory of Neuropsychology, and research career scientist at the Department of Veterans Affairs Boston Healthcare System.