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It seems like a simple question: how does the human brain change over the course of a year? It turns out, we know remarkably little about that. But one scientist at the University of Texas in Austin is trying to answer that question—and to do it, he’s had to take a pretty unusual approach — getting frequent MRI’s of his brain.
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW. I'm Jeremy Hobson.
And if you're feeling a little groggy today, maybe it's because of whatever you did last night to celebrate the Fourth, but it could also be because of changes that happened in your brain over time. A scientist at the University of Texas in Austin is trying to figure that out. From the HERE AND NOW Contributors Network, Matt Largey from KUT in Austin has the story.
MATT LARGEY, BYLINE: It's 7:30 AM Russ Poldrack is lying on his back in front of the MRI scanner in his basement lab at UT. This will be his 58th MRI in less than a year.
DR. RUSSELL POLDRACK: The first few times, I was, you know, quite anxious laying in there. But 50 times doing anything, you become more relaxed in doing it.
LARGEY: Poldrack is a neuroscientist. He runs UT's Imaging Research Center, and he's trying to answer a pretty fundamental question about all of us.
POLDRACK: How much fluctuation is there in a healthy brain over time?
LARGEY: But also how do those fluctuations translate into perceived reality?
POLDRACK: So, for example, how does it relate to my mood from day to day or how well I slept? And also how does it relate to what's going on in my body?
LARGEY: So how do changes in our brains affect how we feel or how we act? And to find out, Poldrack is studying himself.
POLDRACK: Every morning when I get up, I take my blood pressure. I weigh myself.
LARGEY: Then he gets on the computer.
POLDRACK: I have a little survey that I use to track how I'm feeling.
LARGEY: And how well he slept.
POLDRACK: Tuesdays, I also go and have blood taken.
LARGEY: Before he goes to bed...
POLDRACK: I sit down, and I have another Web form that I use to track, you know, what happened that day.
LARGEY: What he ate...
POLDRACK: How much alcohol I drank, what supplements or medicines I took.
LARGEY: And he's been doing all these, plus at least two MRIs a week, since September. Now tucked inside the scanner, Poldrack tries to get comfortable. His assistant watches.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: What's up?
POLDRACK: I need a pan for my left arm. I can't tell if it's down here or this is not around.
LARGEY: Being comfortable is important. He'll spend the next 10 minutes lying perfectly still.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: All right. We're going to start the resting state in four, three, two, one.
(SOUNDBITE OF BEEPING)
LARGEY: So like Poldrack, the scientist, the one lying in the scanner, well, it all goes back to, you know, let's step away from the MRI for a bit because, man, that sound is annoying. That's better. Anyway, the idea came from here.
LAURIE FRICK: My name is Laurie Frick. I'm an artist.
POLDRACK: What we call artist in residents at the Imaging Research Center.
FRICK: I make work based on patterns of self-tracking, like the patterns of you, measurements about you. I think there's this sort of inner beat...
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
FRICK: ...something about you.
LARGEY: Laurie Frick has been tracking herself for years and making art from the data, but she got started with the more practical purpose.
LAURIE FRICK: I started to have this idea that I could kind of decipher or figure out little personal science.
LARGEY: Maybe, she thought, by tracking little things about herself, she could answer some bigger questions.
FRICK: So I've been having these stomach aches on and on for years and years and years. And I thought, all right, I'll start to score it every day.
LARGEY: She tracked what she ate, what she did.
FRICK: And after about a year, I decoded it. By tracking it, I'd figured out what were the causal effects of an upset stomach.
LARGEY: And in a sense, that's just what Poldrack is doing, tracking the little things to get the big answers.
FRICK: I think what's interesting about Russ is to have a neuroscientist, a very respected scientist, start to think about, wait, why don't I start to measure myself?
(SOUNDBITE OF BEEPING)
LARGEY: Poldrack is out of the MRI now. He's got a little blood pressure cup on his wrist. This is the second time he's taken a reading today.
RUSS POLDRACK: Seventy-nine...
LARGEY: Is that pretty normal for you?
POLDRACK: This is about right.
LARGEY: Now, it's over to the computer to answer a few dozen questions about his mood.
POLDRACK: So they'd ask me questions about whether I'm feeling proud, for example, today. I guess, I'm feeling a little proud, shy, not very shy.
LARGEY: The list goes on, bashful, frightened, daring. Poldrack rates himself for each on a scale of one to five. Is it the same questions every time?
POLDRACK: It's the same questions every time. The order is randomly mixed up, so I don't see them in exactly the same order.
LARGEY: Let's say Poldrack is feeling a little blue one day. The idea is to compare his brain scans from that day to ones from days when he's feeling happy or just neutral. Can you actually see something in his brain has changed? But here's the thing, shouldn't a real-deal scientist be doing this a little more by the book, test subjects, control groups, you know, a real study? Poldrack says there's just one problem with that.
POLDRACK: Imagine expecting volunteers to come in off the street, say, once a week for a year, have their brain scanned, have blood drawn.
LARGEY: Also track their mood and blood pressure and everything.
POLDRACK: That's a really hard study to expect volunteers to take part in.
LARGEY: And Poldrack is hardly the first scientist to use himself for an experiment.
DR. TREVOR NORTON: Hello. Trevor Norton.
LARGEY: That's Professor Trevor Norton.
NORTON: I'm a retired professor of marine biology.
LARGEY: And a few years back, he wrote a book. It's called "Smoking Ears and Screaming Teeth," and it's all about the long history of scientists who made big discoveries by experimenting on themselves.
NORTON: Isaac Newton in the 16th century...
LARGEY: You know him.
NORTON: John Hunter in the 18th century...
LARGEY: Gave himself gonorrhea for one experiment.
NORTON: He was an American dentist...
LARGEY: A man named Horace Wells.
NORTON: ...who was the first one to try anesthetics properly.
LARGEY: It turns out the guy who invented the MRI scanner first tried it himself.
NORTON: If you've ever been in an MRI, it's very frightening. It's a terribly noisy thing, isn't it? To get in there and not know quite whether you'll get out alive is really quite brave.
LARGEY: And for Poldrack, all those MRIs have had an effect. The noise made ringing in his ears get worse. Now he uses some noise-cancelling headphones when he's in the scanner. And, well, it's not trying a new medical tool or taking some untested drug or even giving himself gonorrhea, there's something idealistic about what Russ Poldrack is doing. It's the kind of science you don't see much of anymore.
NORTON: It's not a matter of getting really good data. It's who goes first.
LARGEY: So where are we now?
POLDRACK: So we're in a student health center. We're going over to the laboratory where every week I come and they take 20 mls of blood from me.
LARGEY: They'll look at his RNA. That will tell him which of his genes are being expressed on that day and maybe - maybe - whether that corresponds to any changes in his brain. Whatever he learns is obviously just a first step. The idea is to find specific questions to ask in the future.
POLDRACK: Whatever we find in this study will really provide us sort of places to look.
LARGEY: Those questions are already starting to take shape. A little more than halfway through the study, Poldrack is seeing some patterns emerge.
POLDRACK: For example, we see some relationships across days between my general positive mood and brain function. We also see some relationships between my blood pressure on those days and brain function. So we're starting to see some patterns. There's still a lot more to do because we need a lot more data.
LARGEY: He'll keep collecting his own at least through the end of the year. After that, he's hoping some brave volunteers will try it out. For HERE AND NOW, I'm Matt Largey in Austin.
And coming up next, why do we use the word upset when we talk about sports? Back in a minute, HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.