What happens inside the brain when people plan, make decisions, and solve problems? A series of brain imaging projects now under way may someday give us a peek, thanks to a group of computer scientists, neurologists, and psychologists at the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie-Mellon University.
"The goal is to find out how the human operating system works," said Patricia Carpenter, co-director of the Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging, "particularly its ability to recruit and coordinate appropriate parts of the brain to perform a demanding reasoning or decision-making task."
Brain activity imaging information will be quite valuable in helping neurosurgeons repair damaged brains more effectively - or perhaps even eventually offer information workers new thinking techniques.
Computing technologies developed at the two universities are central to these projects, which are being funded with US$16 million in grants from the Pentagon, health research centers, and private foundations.
Earlier brain imaging studies focused on relatively simple tasks, such as the processing of letters or words. But the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie-Mellon researchers aim to model thought processes and the brain's data-processing techniques, building upon computer models of complex thought and specially built magnetic resonance imaging scanners.
The MRIs employed in these projects can measure the activities of each part of the human brain, enabling scientists to visualize the minute-to-minute functioning of the organ by detecting changes in blood oxygen levels in each cubic millimeter of gray matter.
Sophisticated statistical algorithms and computer models - also produced by the research team - can determine how hard each part of the brain is working during a task such as visual thinking, language comprehension, problem-solving, decision-making, or executive processes.
One particularly intriguing project seeks to determine the mental stresses that information workers encounter in high-technology environments. As more jobs become computerized and as PCs provide more information to human beings, it will be important to fathom the "limits of human processing ability" and develop displays and interfaces that keep the information-processing requirements within the human range.
"The studies will measure those limits and help develop manageable displays in complex decision-making environments, such as those encountered by an air-traffic controller or a 911 operator," Carpenter said.
Another project funded by a $5.5 million grant from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development will be used to study children and adults with autism.
Part of that project focuses on MRI and behavioral studies of high-level cognitive processes to determine the precise mental differences between high-functioning autistic subjects - whose IQs are well within the normal range - and matched controls. The research is expected to produce a characterization of autism that will provide "new insights" for therapy.
Still another grant, awarded by the National Institute of Neurological Diseases and Stroke, will develop new cutting-edge imaging methodologies to be used in future MRI work.
The last project, funded by the Office of Naval Research, examines "visual thinking," a process that architects and mechanical engineers perform in their daily work.
Researchers want to determine how they use those parts of the brain specialized for geometric transformations and analysis of configurations, and how others may retrofit their brains to do so.
Results of these studies may change the way brain surgery, psychological therapy, and related services are performed in the coming years.
"Just as no conscientious surgeon or informed patient would currently be satisfied with only a static structural image of the heart prior to certain kinds of cardiac surgery, no one in five or 10 years from now will be
satisfied with just a structural image of the brain," said Marcel Just, another researcher working on the project.
"[Physicians] will want to see an image - or more precisely, a movie - of the brain at work while it does the 'heavy lifting' of thought," Just said.