Secrets of Brain Health is a pioneering collaboration between the University of Bristol and BDH Immersive combining new scientific discoveries with cutting-edge visualisation. Funded by the Jean Golding Institute’s 3D data Visualisation Challenge.
Secrets of Brain Health uses magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans in immersive virtual reality (VR) to illustrate the latest findings in neuroimaging research. Academics at CRICBristol are utilising cutting edge neuroimaging techniques to assess important clinical questions, such as: what is the impact of preterm birth on brain development; and can we detect the earliest signs of cognitive impairment on MRI scans to help prevent dementia in an ageing population. The VR data visualisation tells the story of how the brain develops and matures, how complex neural networks are formed throughout our lifespan.
Our journey starts with the new born brain and we follow its development through the teenage years and into adulthood. Using a special type of MRI scan, sensitive to the movement of water molecules called diffusion tensor imaging (or DTI), we can visualise the connections between brain areas. The images below illustrate the development of neural pathways (the brain’s “wiring”) connecting different regions involved in understanding and producing language.
Learning is a specific example of something called neuroplasticity. It strengthens connections between different nerve cells, allowing the brain to achieve new and wonderful feats. Musical training provides a useful framework for studying training-related neuroplasticity. This is because learning to play an instrument requires the interaction of sensory-motor and higher-order cognitive functions resulting in structural and functional changes to the brain, that can manifest over days to years.
MRI scans of the brain can be read almost like a book and at 50 years of age they start to reveal the story of how well you looked after it during your lifetime. Unfortunately, some of us will develop diseases of old-age and this can be seen on MRI scans. For example, in the brain of an individual with mild cognitive impairment (MCI) the ventricles may be enlarged (shown in blue below), and the hippocampi – brain structures involved in the storage and retrieval of memories - are typically decreased in size (shown in red).
The good news is that recent research reveals that maintaining good cardiovascular health can help protect the brain against common age-related diseases. Aerobic exercise has a protective effect against loss of hippocampal volume, where volume decreases are linked to dementia. Cardiovascular fitness may therefore be important for helping our brains age gracefully. Furthermore, the process of learning new skills has the power to strengthen connections between brain areas and increase the size of key brain regions. One of the Secrets of Brain Health is that it is up to us to think creatively and to exercise our minds and bodies long into later life.