John Mazziotta first attended Columbia University
as a young student, he dreamed of becoming
an architect. But as he pursued his education,
his interests began to shift -- first to molecular
biology, then to medicine.
then I met neuroscientists,” he recalls.
He was a medical student at Georgetown University
when he met the scientists who were building
the world’s first CT (computerized tomography)
scan. “I got completely immersed,”
says Mazziotta, who went on to add to his
M.D. a Ph.D. in neuroanatomy and computer
science from Georgetown.
Mazziotta is a world-renowned expert on imagery
of the human brain and serves as chair of
the Department of Neurology at the David Geffen
School of Medicine at UCLA. Under his leadership,
the department ranks No. 1 among its peers
nationwide in National Institutes of Health
(NIH) funding, including major grants for
research in brain imagery.
as director of UCLA’s Brain Mapping
Center and principal investigator of the International
Consortium for Brain Mapping (ICBM), Mazziotta
leads a team of researchers from six countries
in creating the world’s first comprehensive
atlas of the structure and function of the
normal adult human brain.
effort is an ambitious one, because everybody’s
brain is different.
two brains are the same,” says Mazziotta.
“Their shape. Their size. The way they
differences between brains make it difficult
to know what is normal and what is not —
is a piece of tissue a doctor sees on a scan
an aberration or just a normal variation?
And for brain surgeons, who are unable to
actually view the critical areas in a patient’s
brain, the risk always exists that they may
unwittingly slip into dangerous territory.
with Mazziotta is UCLA Professor of Neurology
Arthur Toga, director of UCLA’s Laboratory
of Neuro Imaging. Toga has overseen brain
scans of hundreds of “normals”
– people who tested within a typical
range on measures such as blood pressure and
pulse. Scans were taken while the subjects
were at rest and also while they performed
a series of functional tasks, from focusing
on a picture of a checkerboard to responding
to auditory tones, to capture how the brain
responds to stimuli. Toga also leads some
60 researchers from a wide range of disciplines
campuswide who are analyzing the data with
the aid of a supercomputer.
global team, which has thus far compiled hundreds
of thousands of brain images from some 7,000
subjects, are further challenged by the fact
the brain is a dynamic environment, always
in flux. What’s more, brain functions
are highly distributed.
can’t just point to an area and say,
‘Here’s the seat of language,’
” Mazziotta says. “For example,
the brain handles the challenge of thinking
of and initiating a word, and of understanding
that word, differently. Execution of these
tasks involves complex circuitry throughout
a goal of establishing the “average”
brain, the researchers have determined that
collecting a massive amount of data would
be their best hope for approaching this moving
target. Mathematics, in the form of “brain-warping”
software that Toga and his team have developed,
will help them unlock the brain’s puzzles.
project, culminating in the world’s
largest, most comprehensive, most high-tech
brain atlas ever, is anticipated for completion
this year. In many respects the neuroscience
equivalent of the human genome project, the
brain atlas will comprise high-definition
structural maps — from gross anatomy
to microscopic detail — of individual
brains based on age, race, gender, educational
background, genetic composition and other
distinguishing characteristics. Layered over
the anatomical maps will be brain functions
such as memory, emotion, language and speech.
the next two years, brain experts worldwide
will be able to access the atlas online for
details on brain structure and function, descriptions
of how the brain changes as we age and how
and where neurological disease occurs —
all viewable in full-color 3-D, much of it
incredibly painstaking work,” says Mazziotta,
whose efforts have helped establish UCLA as
the world’s foremost center on brain
imaging and mapping.
by Judy Lin-Eftekhar. Graphic design by Daphne
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