Exploratorium Magazine Online

by Jennifer Robbins
page 1 of 5

picturing the body

Volume 23, Number 3


 

Well, because you feel at all, for one thing. And how, exactly, you manage to do that has stumped philosophers and scientists alike for centuries. The brain is the physiological final frontier. Because the function of its parts can't be guessed at by taking them apart, understanding how this enigmatic organ becomes so much more than the sum of them has been almost impossible.

With the advent of fMRI, though, that's begun to change.

Short for "functional magnetic resonance imaging," fMRI allows researchers to look at events instead of just structures, and does so with a great degree of precision. Color changes on fMRI scans show researchers which part of the brain is active when a subject performs a mental task such as speaking, listening to a bell ring, or solving a math problem.

"It adds function to structure," explains Dr. Joy Hirsch, Director of the Laboratory of Functional MRI at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. "We've had a good grasp of the basic structure of the brain for twenty years or so—CT scans and X rays have provided that view. But fMRI noninvasively adds function: not just what it looks like, but how it works."

"These days it's pretty rare to identify new parts of the body," says Dr. Nancy Kanwisher, an MIT neuroscientist specializing in fMRI. "But in the last few years people have discovered dozens of pieces of the mind that no one knew about before. And finding pieces of the mind is more of a rush than finding pieces of the body ever could be."

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