Roger Dumas' office in the Brain Sciences Center at the Minneapolis VA Medical Center looks more like a recording studio than a research laboratory. There's a reason. In the 1970s, Dumas was a software writer for ARP Instruments, Inc., and Moog Music, Inc., both synthesizer manufacturers. He later worked in recording studios with such stars as Prince and John Lennon. He displays gold and platinum records for his work with Janet Jackson and Lipps, Inc., which performed the hit "Funkytown."
Nowadays, Dumas' mind is more on synapses than synthesizers. He works in the Brain Science Center's Studio of the Mind, where he is a research fellow and conducts symphonies of neurons, attaching musical notes to brain activities.
Dumas puts his work this way: "The analogy would almost be an orchestral seating arrangement for a given task. What parts of the brain are involved, and what is their relation to each other? Understanding that will help us ostensibly to determine the healthy functioning of the brain, whether it's not functional, and how to map it. For this particular study, music is the template. The instruments have characteristics that allow them to be compared to brain activations. Another study we are doing is the sonification of MEG (magneto-encephalography) data, data turned into sound. In our case, we've had people tell us it sounds very much like music. Music is multidimensional: it has loudness, scale, presence, panorama. Many parameters can be assigned to the data."
Dumas shares an audio file taken from the brain activity of a man who had just heard "The Pink Panther" theme song. The file shows that the brain almost perfectly mimicked the tune, a finding Dumas hopes will help him create a new roadmap of the most complex human organ.
"It will allow us to educate ourselves, and people who are interested, on the workings of the brain from a whole new perspective," he says. "Down the road, we may be able to determine synchronicity between areas of the brain. We may be able to recognize patterns that are inherent in inner-healthy or diseased brains. It allows for the sort of intuition that one can't get through one's eyes.
It happens in real time. This is another advantage of sound. It has a time element to it that even a movie can't have."
Dumas' research is just one realm the center has explored since opening in 1991, thanks to funds raised by The American Legion Department of Minnesota. The center focuses on explaining brain mechanisms and integrated functions, such as control of movement, motor learning and memory, spatial cognition and language function, and how they are affected by stroke, Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, mental retardation and neuro-prosthetics.
When the center first opened, it did so with a staff of three. Now there are 50, led by Dr. Apostolos Georgopoulos, The American Legion Family-University of Minnesota Brain Sciences Chair. He is also the University of Minnesota regents professor, the university's McKnight Presidential Chair in Cognitive Neuroscience, and professor of neuroscience, neurology and psychiatry.
The soft-spoken, Patras, Greece-born scientist, who came to the facility from Johns Hopkins in 1991, takes great pride both in the center's accomplishments and its potential to unlock some of the brain's many secrets.
"What has kept us from understanding the brain is, it's very heterogeneous, and it's very plastic. You cannot pin it down. You try to fix one condition, and another changes. It's a continuous integration and spread of information. One of the reasons we don't understand the brain that much is because of its nature. We don't have the conception framework to understand that. It's disappointing on one hand, but it's very exciting because we have so much to learn."
The Brain Sciences Center is equipped with an MEG neuro-imaging tool, which allows nearly real-time measuring of brain activity, and a staff that comes from a wide range of disciplines. That combination allows the center to target numerous areas of research, including:
• PTSD. This new study, using MEG, will involve veterans of all ages, ranging from World War II to the war on terror, who suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
• Adolescent psychiatric diagnosis. The project's goal is to enhance treatment of teens with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.
• Alcoholism. Images are collected of severe cases during early withdrawal to measure the impact of alcohol in the brains of alcoholics.
• Alzheimer's disease. Researchers hope to detect the earliest changes in the brain functions of Alzheimer's patients and provide background for future studies on treatment.
• Schizophrenia. The MEG study focuses on processing information by schizophrenia patients at different perceptual, conceptual and attentive levels.
One of just a handful of instruments like it in the United States, the MEG measures actual dynamic brain activity at a thousandth-of-a-second temporal resolution. The MEG is non-invasive. A patient lies down on a "bed" in a magnetically shielded room, places his or her head inside a helmet-shaped opening, and stares at a white light for 45 to 60 seconds. The device's 248 sensors record interactions in the brain on a millisecond-by-millisecond basis, much faster than an MRI.
"It allows us to see brain activity on the same time scale as the brain operates," said Dr. Art Leuthold, the center's MEG site manager. "Before, you could see the whole brain activity, but the time scale was more like a second (delay)."
The center initially tested the device on 10 healthy volunteers and found their brain cells were moving at nearly identical paces and patterns. That led to a larger study involving 142 subjects, including people with Alzheimer's disease, chronic alcoholism, schizophrenia, multiple sclerosis or Sjogren's syndrome, as well as healthy controls.
Researchers at the center also develop large-scale mathematical models of the brain network and then simulate those models using high-performance supercomputers. The large-scale neural network simulations are able to model certain aspects of the underlying brain structure, and the information gathered should provide means for the investigation of many neurological disorders.
The center's researchers also hope the information can help develop a new generation of prosthetics, driven by brain signals, to assist patients dealing with paralysis or limb loss. The simulations of large-scale brain models can be important for pinpointing relevant brain signals and their movements. The end result: a prosthetic limb designed so its movement is driven by brain signals - something Georgopoulos says can greatly help U.S. servicemembers who have lost limbs. Such an application for his research, he says, is merely a beginning.
"You open up so many other possibilities there, not just the motor stuff. The neurotherapy, the remediation, retraining people to use limbs ... There's so much we could do."
– Steve Brooks