Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Beatles, Brains and Seahorses

MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) scans taken of the head, create a magnetic field 30,000 times stronger than that generated by the earth. In doing so, water molecules in the brain absorb or transmit radio waves which can then be read by computer. Ultimately this allows us to measure changes in blood-oxygen levels, indicating areas of activity deep within the brain.
Brain scans have only just begun to reap enormous benefits for scientists as they can now, literally, watch us 'think'. They are re-shaping the way in which we see ourselves and what is known about how we process our emotions and relate to the outside world.
Another important brain scanning technique is the CT (Computed Tomography) scan in which two-dimensional X rays are transformed into a three-dimensional image.
But what can the Beatles take credit for? In an intriguing footnote in her recently published book, Pictures of the Mind , Miriam Boleyn-Fitzgerald reveals that the enormous success of the group enabled their then record company EMI to help fund one of the researchers who invented the CT scan.
The language used to discuss the Brain has changed to reflect the dominant ideologies of the time, when humoral theory was popular it was seen as a part of the ebb and flow of fluids around our system. More recently it has been compared to a 'computer' that acts as a controlling nerve centre. I like Boleyn-Fitzgerald's description of the hippocampus, a structure within the forebrain, which she describes, more naturally, as 'seahorse-shaped'.

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