Project Wonder - The art of science at the Medical College of Wisconsin

Watching the Brain Think

Is it possible to watch a brain think? In the 1990s, MCW became internationally recognized for its pioneering work on functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), an advanced version of the MRI. While research on fMRI was underway at Harvard University and other institutions during at the time, MCW scientists published their first academic paper on fMRI in 1992, which detailed one of the world’s first three successful fMRI experiments. MCW’s team made significant contributions through the development of a real-time, non-invasive assessment of brain function and the observation of blood flow in the brain. Because blood flow in the brain is linked to the activation of nerve cells that pass along and store thoughts and information, blood flowing to a specific area of the brain indicates that area being used for a specific task, such as controlling motion, storing or recalling memories or processing language.

MCW’s research on fMRI was pioneered by James S. Hyde, PhD, and two graduate students in the early 1990s, Eric C. Wong, MD, PhD, and Peter Bandettini, PhD. They used a magnetic resonance imager to not only look at the anatomy of the brain, but to watch thinking take place. In 1999, MCW scientists would use fMRI to make major discoveries including a method for diagnosing Alzheimer’s disease. That same year, MCW researchers were the first to record the brain working in real time as a person mentally shifts attention from one subject to another, or when a person is not paying attention at all.

Today, fMRI provides clinicians with a unique opportunity to improve patient care through the use of this reliable, noninvasive, and precise imaging procedure. It has had a tremendous impact on several areas of patient care including the presurgical mapping of patients with brain tumors and epilepsy, as well as furthered our understanding of other neurobehavioral disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease, stroke, traumatic brain injury, and multiple sclerosis.

MCW scientists have published more than 510 scientific articles on fMRI since the institution's pioneering first manuscript in 1992. Researchers throughout the world have cited these papers more than 28,000 times in other published studies. MCW's fMRI researchers have garnered more than $82 million in federal funding from the National Institutes of Health since the early 1990s.

Photo: In 1992, the most powerful magnet in the state of Wisconsin was lowered by crane into the formerly named National Biomedical Electron Spin Resonance Center at MCW. The magnet shown was 60,000 times stranger than the magnetic field of the earth.

Artwork by Kristina Awadallah
Animation and Sound Design by Alex Boyes