In the early 1990s, Mass General researchers introduced functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, which showed the world how imaging could reveal how the brain functions.

In the early 1990s, researchers at the Athinoula A. Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging at Massachusetts General Hospital – then called the MGH-NMR Center – showed the world how imaging could reveal how the brain functions. A quarter of a century later, the community commemorated those researchers and the 25th anniversary of the introduction of functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI).

Bruce Rosen, MD, PhD
Bruce Rosen, MD, PhD

The groundbreaking technique was described in a seminal 1991 Science paper and a 1992 paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, both by Martinos Center investigators. The Science paper made the cover of the journal.

“If you wiggle your hand, the part of your brain that controls your hand will light up on the images,” says Bruce Rosen, MD, PhD, director of the Martinos Center. “If you’re looking at a picture of someone you know, the parts of your brain involved in retrieving memories will light up.”

Today, fMRI is used in several different domains, including the world of presurgical planning. Neurosurgeons use functional imaging to see not only brain tumors, but also the normal functioning parts of the brain. The fMRI can serve as a road map for a surgeon to note crucial parts of the brain that should be avoided. Neurologists use fMRI for patients with Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease to see where the degenerative process has taken place. It is in psychiatric disease, however, that fMRI has its greatest use, Dr. Rosen says.

Honoring fMRI Pioneers

“Psychiatric diseases are not typically characterized by abnormalities of the anatomy of the brain, yet we know the brain is not working properly,” he says. “Mass General researchers are using the tools of functional imaging to understand the abnormalities and why the brain isn’t functioning properly for people who have post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and schizophrenia, among others. fMRI allows us to study the brain while it’s working to understand how different treatments allow function to return, preserve or enhance function.”

“fMRI has become the most important tool for people who study neurological diseases to see which treatments are most effective,” Dr Rosen says.

In honor of this milestone anniversary, Dr. Rosen and fellow researchers from the Martinos Center hosted an fMRI25 Symposium and Reception on Dec. 6, 2016, at Harvard Medical School. The program featured a number of fMRI pioneers and touched upon ways researchers hope to advance fMRI and discover ways to treat neurodegenerative and mental diseases. They also discussed how this tool is affecting other aspects of the broader society, including the law and emerging study of neuroethics.

“fMRI has become the most important tool for people who study neurological diseases to see which treatments are most effective,” Dr Rosen says. “This is a chance to see and think about not only how far we’ve come, but how much there is left to do. Despite our advances, there’s so much about the brain we don’t know. It’s humbling that 25 years later, while we’ve learned a lot, there’s a lot left to be learned.”

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This story first appeared in MGH Hotline.

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