In 2013, a junior researcher, wanted to further understand the brain’s circuitry, individually. He wanted to prove that despite having outwardly similarities like age and occupations, there was nothing average or similar for each brain. To achieve this, he needed to collect a massive amount of data.

The only problem was, the study was on a tight budget of USD10,000 and MRI scans were too costly during the day to collect enough data or pay test subjects.

Nico Dosenbach, assistant professor of paediatric and developmental neurology at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and the study’s lead author, together with his colleague, Steve Nelson found a way around the problem by perusing the MRI scanners after hours, when the hourly rates are slashed by 90%.

Examining the brain after hours

Thus, the Midnight Scan Club was born. Dosenbach became the first test subject for his own study, albeit feeling apprehensive at first, while Nelson the second. After the two data sets, Dosenbach managed to recruit eight other graduate students and junior faculty members who volunteered their time in the middle of the night as they were curious what their brains looked like.

Brain imaging techniques were employed to assess brain networks that control speech and motor functions. The test subjects were evaluated while resting and performing cognitive tasks such as reading.

The biggest challenge was in getting the subjects to stay completely still – not even a move of 0.2 millimetres, which could compromise the data – and not to fall asleep during the resting state. After 12 two-hour scans or slightly more than 24 hours per person, Dosenbach reached the conclusion that the study had assumed.

“The thing we suspected, and also found, was that [every] person’s brain was different, even though we’re all night-owl neuroscientists in this cohort, who like to stay up late and volunteered for this, and it was really fascinating to actually see that,” he explained.

“There’s no such thing as the ‘average brain’. There’s no average of your brain and my brain. There’s my brain, and there’s your brain.”

Out of the night and into the day

The study bore 10 high-fidelity, individual-specific connectomes – detailed maps of neural brain connections that reveal spatial and organizational variability in brain networks. This may one day be helpful in determining personalized treatments for brain-related disorders. Dosenbach hopes to use neuroimaging to personalise treatments for patients with migraines, seizures and depression.

“Averaging brain data across many individuals has allowed scientists to learn a lot about brain function. But compiling data on an individual level invites opportunities for precision,” Dosenbach says. “The goal is to find individual variations that may play a role in neurological diseases, from migraines to Alzheimer’s to brain injuries. This will also help in understanding why people respond uniquely to different drug treatments.

Dosenbach aims to collect more and higher quality data per subject and invites other researchers to make full use of idle scanners at night in other institutes to increase the amount of data. The Club’s strategy proved economically efficient, as they have only spent USD12,000, a pittance compared to the USD125,000 they would have had to spend if the scans had been done during the day. MIMS

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