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MNI Launches Massive Brain-Imaging Database

Armen Hareyan's picture


Montreal Neurological Institute makes images of developing brains available 24-7.

It's been a long, fascinating journey for biomedical engineering professor Dr. Alan Evans, as he and his colleagues at McGill University's Montreal Neurological Institute have spent the past six years collecting images of brains for the first online database on normal brain development ever compiled.

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Now, the NIH MRI Study of Normal Brain Development has put the first comprehensive collection of images of and information about developing brains at the disposal of researchers around the world through an online computer network. The MNI was chosen to lead the project in 2000 by the U.S. National Institutes of Health because of its internationally recognized expertise in the relatively new field of brain imaging.

As the data-coordinating site for the $30-million project, the MNI receives all information and images about the test subjects and is responsible for quality control and populating the database. Research staff at the MNI also designed the accompanying software program and online interface. Because of their core role in the creation of this widely available resource, the MNI/McGill team will be credited for years to come for their contribution to myriad brain studies on developmental problems such as autism, epilepsy, speech/language impairment and child-onset schizophrenia.

"This project is already making waves in the scientific community, as we no longer have to search for suitable control subjects and then take the time to scan and process data before analyzing it," Evans explained. "Instead, the control data is at our fingertips 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We have massive amounts of information at our disposal that we never had before, which can only lead to better science and new discoveries."

The database contains MRI scans and other data on the structure and function of children's developing brains. Six American pediatric study centres recruited more than 500 children and adolescents from newborns to 18-year-olds and scanned their brains multiple times over a period of years. The database contains not only the images from the scans, but also results from intelligence, neuropsychological, verbal, non-verbal and behavioural tests. Scientists will now be able to understand how normal developmental changes in brain anatomy relate to motor and behavioural skills, such as motor coordination and language acquisition. Even higher-order skills like planning, IQ, and organizational skills can be assessed.

While many scientists in the past have toiled away in independent "silos," Dr. Evans says setting the data free has been the most rewarding part of the project. "The way science is being done is increasingly collaborative on a global scale. It is exciting to see this database being used for so many studies."