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Functional MRI



An fMRI scan:
Active regions in the brain appear coloured

Functional MRI (fMRI) can track the brain in action. When a region of the brain is working, chemical signals conduct messages from one part of the brain to another, a process that requires oxygen. Therefore, more oxygenated blood flows to active areas. It is possible using very fast scanning to give someone a task to do in the scanner and find out which brain regions had more oxygenated blood during that task and therefore which regions were involved.


fMRI in psychiatric research

fMRI studies have become increasingly common in psychiatry in the last few years. By providing a picture of the brain in real time, they have offered the first chance to see human reactions to drugs and stimuli as they occur.
FMRI has been used to investigate a number of neuropsychiatric disorders, including depression, schizophrenia, Alzheimers disease and epilepsy. It is particulary promising as a diagnostic technique for disorders like schizophrenia which lack accepted biological markers and are diagnosed on behavioural signs or self-reported symptoms.

Using fMRI we looked at the pattern of neural activation in patients with schizophrenia undertaking a language task and compared these with people who did not have schizophrenia. We also exploited the potential of fMRI for reapeated scanning to monitor drug-induced brain changes in a group of men with schizophrenia on switching from conventional medication to the atypical antipsychotic Risperidone. This research opens up the possibility of developing profiles to assess the probability of a positive response in a patient before embaking upon expensive and lengthy courses of treatments.

In the future we expect to see many technical advances in fMRI. Improvement in the resolution of scanning will extend the range of disease processes that can be studies, including momentary phenomena such as hallucinations. Researchers are already attempting this by investigating the combination of fMRI with electrophysiological techniques such as electroencephalography. There is also progress towards real time fMRI where brain activity is revealed during the scan, rather then waiting to process the data afterwards.