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Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Trauma Alters Brain Function... So What?

According to a new paper in the prestigous journal PNAS, High-field MRI reveals an acute impact on brain function in survivors of the magnitude 8.0 earthquake in China.

The earthquake, you'll remember, happened on 12th May last year in central China. Over 60,000 people died. The authors of this paper took 44 earthquake survivors, and 32 control volunteers who had not experienced the disaster.

The volunteers underwent a "resting state" fMRI scan; survivors were scanned between 13 and 25 days after the earthquake. Resting state fMRI is simply a scan conducted while lying in the scanner, not doing anything in particular. Previous work has shown that fMRI can be used to measure resting state neural activity in the form of low-frequency oscillations.

The authors found differences in the resting state low-frequency activity (ALFF) between the trauma survivors and the controls. In survivors, resting state activity was increased in several areas:
"The whole-brain analysis indicated that, vs. controls, survivors showed significantly increased ALFF in the left prefrontal cortex and the left precentral gyrus, extending medially to the left presupplementary motor area... [and] region of interest (ROI) analyses revealed significantly increased ALFF in bilateral insula and caudate and the left putamen in the survivor group..."
They also reported correlations between resting activity in some of these areas and self-reported anxiety and depression symptoms in the survivors.

Finally, survivors showed reduced functional connectivity between a wide range of areas ("a distributed network that included the bilateral amygdala, hippocampus, caudate, putamen, insula, anterior cingulate cortex, and cerebellum.") Functional connectivity analysis measures the correlation in activity across different areas of the brain - whether the areas tend to activate at the same time or not.

Now - what does all this mean? And does it help us understand the brain?

The fact that there are differences between the two groups is neither informative nor surprising. "Resting state" neural activity presumably reflects whatever is going through a person's mind. Recent earthquake survivors are going to be thinking about rather different things compared to luckier people who didn't experience such trauma. It doesn't take a brain scan to tell you that, but that's all these scans really tell us.

But these weren't just any differences - they were particular differences in particular brain regions. Does that make knowing about them more interesting and useful?

Not as such, because we don't know what they represent, or what causes them. So living through an earthquake gives you "Increased ALFF in the left prefrontal cortex" - but what does that mean? It could mean almost anything. The left prefrontal cortex is a big chunk of the brain, and its functions probably include most complex cognitive processes. Ditto for the other areas mentioned.

The authors link their findings to previous work with frankly vague statements such as "The increased regional activity and reduced functional connectivity in frontolimbic and striatal regions occurred in areas known to be important for emotion processing". But anatomically speaking, most of the brain is either "fronto-limbic" or "striatal", and almost everywhere is involved in "emotion processing" in one way or another.

So I don't think we understand the brain much better for reading this paper. Further work, building on these results, might give insights. We might, say, learn that decreased connectivity between Regions X and Y is because trauma decreases serotonin levels, which prevents signals being communicated between these areas, which is why trauma victims can't use X to deliberately stop recalling traumatic memories, which is what Y does.

I just made that up. But that's a theory which could be tested. Much of today's neuroimaging research doesn't involve testable theories - it is merely the exploratory search for neural differences between two groups. Neuroimaging technology is powerful, and more advanced techniques are always being developed. What with resting state, functional connectivity, pattern-classification analysis, and other fancy methods, the scope for finding differences between groups is enormous and growing. I'm being rather unfair in criticizing this paper; there are hundreds like it. I picked this one because it was published last week in a good journal.

Exploratory work can be useful as a starting point, but at least in my opinion, there is too much of it. If you want to understand the brain, as opposed to simply getting published papers to your name, you need a theory sooner or later. That's what science is about.

ResearchBlogging.orgLui, S., Huang, X., Chen, L., Tang, H., Zhang, T., Li, X., Li, D., Kuang, W., Chan, R., Mechelli, A., Sweeney, J., & Gong, Q. (2009). High-field MRI reveals an acute impact on brain function in survivors of the magnitude 8.0 earthquake in China Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0812751106

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