The Midnight Scan Club
Back in 2013, Dr. Nico Dosenbach had a problem. He wanted to study the brain activity of individual people. There was one catch: As a junior level researcher, he couldn’t afford the hourly rate to use the scanning machine during normal business hours.
Out of this predicament, the “Midnight Scan Club” was born. Its members were a group of curious researchers who were willing to scan their own brains late at night, starting with Dosenbach himself. And for all those hours of sleep lost, the Midnight Scan Club produced something remarkable—an unprecedented amount of data on individual brain activity. Dr. Nico Dosenbach joins Ira to discuss what turning the scanner on himself has taught him about what makes people different.
Nico Dosenbach is an assistant professor of neurology at Washington University, St. Louis. He’s based in St. Louis, Missouri.
Back in 2013. Dr. Nico Dosenbach had a problem. He wanted to study the brain activity of individual people, but you know as a junior-level researcher, he couldn’t afford the hourly rate to use the scanning machine he needed– not during normal business hours anyway.
That’s when the Midnight Scan Club was born, a group of curious researchers who were willing to scan their own brains late at night, at midnight, starting with Dr. Dosenbach himself. Here to tell us what he gained in exchange for all those hours of sleep loss is Dr. Nico Dosenbach, assistant professor of neurology at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. Welcome to Science Friday.
NICO DOSENBACH: Hi, thanks for having me on the show.
IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome. Tell us what inspired you to study individual brain activity.
NICO DOSENBACH: I’ve been obsessed with that for quite a long time. But the moment I really thought that we could do this was when I heard about work by Stanford professor Russ Poldrack who’d done something similar on himself. The problem we had was that Russ Poldrack at the time was the Director of Neurosciences at UT Austin, had a lot of resources, and I didn’t. I had about $10,000.
And so at first I didn’t know what we could possibly do to scan ourselves enough to have a really clear picture of what an individual’s brain looks like. And the sort of eureka moment was when I was talking to my good friend Steve Nelson, longtime friend and collaborator, co-last author on this paper we have, when he told me– we were walking to his car, he was going to give me a ride.
And he told me that, hey Nico, you know after midnight scan charges are 90% off. And in my memory I slapped him on his back really hard and I said, that’s it. That’s how we’re going to do it. And I’m pretty stubborn. He probably thought I was just kidding at the time, but that’s how we all got started.
IRA FLATOW: So you then formed the Midnight Scan Club.
NICO DOSENBACH: Yeah. The first thing we needed was I didn’t have money to pay for prime-time scan charges, and I didn’t have people I could pay, so we had to recruit some other folks who were going to work with us in the middle of night for free, which isn’t super easy. So we recruited some super-bright grad students, Tim Laumann and Adrian Gilmore.
Because you need two people to do this. You need somebody who is the participant in the middle of the night and somebody who is willing to work the scanner in the middle of night. And then we’ve got two more people on board later, Jeff Burke and Deanna Green, and separate core team of grad students and junior faculty who were all doing this on off hours.
And the amount of scanning at night that we wanted to do sounded pretty gruesome, and I decided the best way to find out if somebody can do it is if I would try it. And I was, to be honest, kind of apprehensive in the beginning. But I tried it and it wasn’t that bad. And by the time we’d done two data sets, I was the first one, Steve Nelson was the second one. A lot of curious grad students at Wash U had heard about it and we essentially started getting requests like, hey, can I be in the study? I want to know what my brain looks like. And so to get to 10 people willing to do this wasn’t all that hard.
IRA FLATOW: Wow. How many hours did you spend scanning your brain?
NICO DOSENBACH: The first data set that we just released, it was 12 two-hour scans, so about 24, 25 hours per person. I’ve done a lot more since then, but that was the original study.
IRA FLATOW: Now I know that an MRI is a little donut hole in which you put your head into. Two hours inside of that in the middle of the night?
NICO DOSENBACH: Yeah, it wasn’t easy. The two main problems are people moving too much– and I’m talking about if you move more than 0.2 millimeters it can hurt the study, so not moving at all. And falling asleep.
That’s the most difficult one. Because one of the scans we did was what’s called the resting state scan. You can kind of think of it as meditating with your eyes open. You lie in complete darkness. You’ve got this little white dot on the screen that you are allowed to look at, and you’re not allowed to move and you’re not allowed to fall asleep. Because that’s the hardest part of this kind of study, we started each scan off with 30 minutes of that.
And before we had started, most people heard about this idea were like, Nico, you’re fidgety. I’ve seen you take naps in your office and you have to know you cannot do this, which motivated me more. And one of the adaptations was to just shift my hours and take a nap from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. and then get up and be ready for the scanning in the night.
IRA FLATOW: Wow. This is Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International. I’m Ira Flatow talking with Nico Dosenbach, founder of the Midnight Scan Club. Have you amassed enough data or enough scans to reach a conclusion about brain activity of some sort?
NICO DOSENBACH: Well, I’m really data greedy, so there’s never enough. But with the amount of data we have, we’ve had some really interesting discoveries. The one we thought we were going to find was that previously most functional MRI research has been done on group average data, because it’s a very noisy signal, so you usually would get 20, 50, or 100, 1,000 people.
You take the brain scans, you average all the images together, and then you can say something with clarity about a group of people like typical people or people with a certain or psychiatric disease.
And so we thought that that wasn’t a real image of real brains as they are in the world. There’s no such thing as the average brain. There’s no average of your brain and my brain. There’s my brain and there’s your brain. And we wanted to study the real thing, because we thought it would look quite different, and our study definitely shows that it does. An Individual map looks nothing like a group map.
And the thing we kind of suspected and also found was that not one person’s brain, even though we’re all night-owl neuroscientists in this cohort who like to stay up late and volunteered for this, they’re all different, which kind of makes sense, because even identical twins have different personalities. There’s not one other Nico Dosenbach in this world. But it was really fascinating to actually see that.
For example, Steve Nelson, my collaborator on this, we’re the same age, we have a similar job, we have a similar interest in neuroscience, and his brain looks nothing like mine. So that was really fun to see.
And the biggest surprise was probably that we might have discovered what I would call common variants in global brain organization. So for the basic backbone of the brain, eight of the people looked like the group data, kind of, and similar to each other that the major brain that works related to things like attention, executive control, vision, movement, they were all arranged in sort of a big circle so that information could flow quickly from one end of the giant network– the brain is essentially a giant network– information flowed quickly.
We had two people where the ring was broken, and we could even prove this mathematically. There’s a mathematical property called global efficiency, and two people that was lower. I’m one of those two people. I obviously don’t think it means that my brain is slow, but it’s fascinating to see that there’s that much variation across people that are otherwise pretty homogeneous. And the only way to see this is with high-density MRI scans.
IRA FLATOW: Well, considering there must be hundreds of MRIs sitting idle at midnight across the country, could you invite and crowd-source this to other people?
NICO DOSENBACH: Oh, that is a great idea. I would love that. Yeah, it’s kind of frustrating, because MRI is a shared research at every university. Wash U here has a whole bunch. But it’s still hard to get on it during prime-time hours, so the only way we could standardize our study was to do it at midnight. And you’re absolutely right. it’s essentially this very expensive resource is going to waste. I’ll have to write that down.
IRA FLATOW: You know, there might be a few medical people listening to this show and might want to join the Midnight Scan Club in their own scanner. So is it OK if they reach out to you, Nico?
NICO DOSENBACH: Oh, absolutely. I would love that.
IRA FLATOW: How do they reach you?
NICO DOSENBACH: Well, they could come to my lab website.
IRA FLATOW: What is that?
NICO DOSENBACH: Dosenbachlab@wsu.edu. I’ve got a Twitter account. I just learned about Twitter. I’m brand new. It’s @club_scan.
IRA FLATOW: Say it again.
NICO DOSENBACH: It’s @club_scan.
IRA FLATOW: OK, @club_scan if you want to become part of the Midnight Scan Club. Good luck to you and your colleagues and all your members, Nico.
NICO DOSENBACH: Thank you very much.
IRA FLATOW: That’s Nico Dosenbach, assistant professor of neurology at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.