Looking Inside the Human Brain

What’s really going on inside your head when you make a decision, make a mistake, or have a few drinks? In this segment, Ira and guests talk about new research involving the field of functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI. The technique allows researchers to monitor the blood flow through parts of the brain as it responds to stimuli, allowing researchers to monitor which parts of the brain are active and which are resting. Though the technique is being eagerly explored in a variety of fields, fMRI has received criticism from some brain experts as being the modern-day equivalent of phrenology. We’ll hear about the technique, and what it can tell researchers about the inner workings of the human brain.

We’ll also hear about three recent research projects making use of the technique. One, reported in the journal Nature Neuroscience, looks at brain activity during the process of making a simple decision — whether to push a button with the right or left hand. The researchers found that parts of the brain activated as much as seven seconds before the person being studied was aware of having made a decision, and that by looking at the patterns of brain activity, the researchers could predict which button the subject would choose to push. We’ll also hear about researchers studying errors made while research participants were performing a simple, mindless task. The research team was able to detect patterns of brain activity about ten seconds before the study subjects made a mistake in their tasks. The results of that study were recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

We’ll also talk with a researcher studying the effects of alcohol on the brain. Functional MRI tests show that in people with blood alcohol levels of 0.08 (legally intoxicated in some states), there is increased activity in a part of the brain associated with rewards, and a change in the brain’s fear response to risks. The research is described in the Journal of Neuroscience.

Segment Guests

John-Dylan Haynes

John-Dylan Haynes, Ph.D., is Director of the Berlin Center for Advanced Neuroimaging. He’s based in Berlin.

Tom Eichele

Tom Eichele is a professor at the University of Bergen Department of Biological and Medical Psychology. He’s based in Bergen, Germany.

Jodi Gilman

Jodi Gilman, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor at Harvard Medical School/Massachusetts General Hospital with the Center for Addiction Medicine.

Jack Grinband

Jack Grinbrand is a professor with the Department of Radiology, Columbia University. He’s based in New York City.