“And then I met neuroscientists,” he recalls. He was a medical student at Georgetown University when he met the scientists who were building the world’s first CT (computerized tomography) scan. “I got completely immersed,” says Mazziotta, who went on to add to his M.D. a Ph.D. in neuroanatomy and computer science from Georgetown.
Today, Mazziotta is a world-renowned expert on imagery of the human brain and serves as chair of the Department of Neurology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. Under his leadership, the department ranks No. 1 among its peers nationwide in National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding, including major grants for research in brain imagery.
And as director of UCLA’s Brain Mapping Center and principal investigator of the International Consortium for Brain Mapping (ICBM), Mazziotta leads a team of researchers from six countries in creating the world’s first comprehensive atlas of the structure and function of the normal adult human brain.
The effort is an ambitious one, because everybody’s brain is different.
“No two brains are the same,” says Mazziotta. “Their shape. Their size. The way they are organized.”
These differences between brains make it difficult to know what is normal and what is not — is a piece of tissue a doctor sees on a scan an aberration or just a normal variation? And for brain surgeons, who are unable to actually view the critical areas in a patient’s brain, the risk always exists that they may unwittingly slip into dangerous territory.
Collaborating with Mazziotta is UCLA Professor of Neurology Arthur Toga, director of UCLA’s Laboratory of Neuro Imaging. Toga has overseen brain scans of hundreds of “normals” – people who tested within a typical range on measures such as blood pressure and pulse. Scans were taken while the subjects were at rest and also while they performed a series of functional tasks, from focusing on a picture of a checkerboard to responding to auditory tones, to capture how the brain responds to stimuli. Toga also leads some 60 researchers from a wide range of disciplines campuswide who are analyzing the data with the aid of a supercomputer.
The global team, which has thus far compiled hundreds of thousands of brain images from some 7,000 subjects, are further challenged by the fact the brain is a dynamic environment, always in flux. What’s more, brain functions are highly distributed.
“You can’t just point to an area and say, ‘Here’s the seat of language,’ ” Mazziotta says. “For example, the brain handles the challenge of thinking of and initiating a word, and of understanding that word, differently. Execution of these tasks involves complex circuitry throughout the brain.”
With a goal of establishing the “average” brain, the researchers have determined that collecting a massive amount of data would be their best hope for approaching this moving target. Mathematics, in the form of “brain-warping” software that Toga and his team have developed, will help them unlock the brain’s puzzles.
The project, culminating in the world’s largest, most comprehensive, most high-tech brain atlas ever, is anticipated for completion this year. In many respects the neuroscience equivalent of the human genome project, the brain atlas will comprise high-definition structural maps — from gross anatomy to microscopic detail — of individual brains based on age, race, gender, educational background, genetic composition and other distinguishing characteristics. Layered over the anatomical maps will be brain functions such as memory, emotion, language and speech.
Within the next two years, brain experts worldwide will be able to access the atlas online for details on brain structure and function, descriptions of how the brain changes as we age and how and where neurological disease occurs — all viewable in full-color 3-D, much of it computer-animated.
“It’s incredibly painstaking work,” says Mazziotta, whose efforts have helped establish UCLA as the world’s foremost center on brain imaging and mapping.