Hoping to some day develop new tools for diagnosing mental health disorders and monitoring the progress of their treatments, scientists have now turned to uncovering new information about the mind by studying brains while they are at rest.
Researchers at Oregon Health and Science University are running one such research project in collaboration with experts at Washington University in St. Louis, the latest findings of which have been published in the journal the Public Library of Science Computational Biology.
"For years, the vast majority of scientists studying human functional brain organization have focused on how activity changes when engaged in specific tasks," said Dr. Damien Fair, a postdoctoral research scientist in psychiatry, OHSU School of Medicine.
"However now we know there are several regions in the brain that continue to interact while a person is supposedly at rest - sort of like a car that idles at a stoplight. Our lab is studying these interactions, or spontaneous brain activity, while the brain is at rest. We think that this approach will eventually help us distinguish typical function from atypical function and therefore help more rapidly diagnose and appropriately treat mental disorders," the researcher said.
The researchers use a form of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), known as functional connectivity MRI, to study the brains of a large group of subjects while they were at rest.
The researchers said that their efforts led to the identification of brain regions that spontaneously activated together while the subjects were at rest.
According to the, these regions operate in tandem with one another, and group into regional networks.
"After observing a large group of study subjects between the ages of 7 and 31, we witnessed an interesting phenomenon. Communications between brain regions seem to be localized in children, but over time, regional communication becomes distributed across the whole brain. Despite these differences, children's brains are still very efficient. As with the adults, the brains in the children were still organized like a 'small world,'" added Fair.
The researchers will next compare functional connectivity MRI images taken from typically developing human subjects with images taken from human subjects with mental disorders, as they believe that doing so can help them pinpoint distinct functional differences that may one day assist physicians in diagnosing certain disorders.
"One of our key interest areas is ADHD. ADHD is one of the most widely diagnosed mental disorders in children, yet diagnosing it can be very difficult because diagnosis is based on patient and parent interviews and observational studies. Having a more tangible form of diagnosis - such as an MRI screening tool would be tremendously valuable to patients and physicians," said Fair.