In 2011, Aston University launched the Aston Brain Centre (ABC) - a unique facility that unites the latest techniques and equipment in brain research. As well as housing a whole brain paediatric M.E.G. scanner - the first of its kind in the UK - the Centre also offers a Dyslexia and Developmental Assessment Unit, as well as sleep research laboratories and a Human Brain Tissue Laboratory. Here the Director of Aston Brain Centre, Professor Paul L Furlong, explains how the University’s pioneering contributions to neuroscience began with the establishment of the Clinical Neurophysiology Unit in 1963.
The mysteries of the human brain have been a constant preoccupation amongst scientists and philosophers throughout the ages. The brain is, after all, the seat of our emotions; it is the source of our memories and identity, and the agent by which we process data from the world around us.
Yet it was not until the 1924, with Hans Berger’s invention of Electroencephalography (EEG), that scientists had an objective method of measuring brain activity (or “brain waves”). This was achieved by placing multiple electrodes on the scalp which recorded voltage fluctuations within the neurons of the brain.
EEG remains a standard tool today, but scientists at Aston are at the forefront of new techniques in brain mapping that are opening up fresh directions in neurophysiology and cognitive neuroscience.
The Clinical Neurophysiology Unit
Paul Furlong, Professor of Clinical Neuroimaging, says his work has its roots in Aston’s Clinical Neurophysiology Unit, established by Professor Graham Harding in 1963.
“His background was in Psychology,” he explains, “and he pulled together a number of colleagues who were interested in using technology to try to unravel psychological questions of the day by studying how the brain works.”
Like Berger, Professor Harding’s focus was EEG but his use of it - to produce what is called an “evoked response” - was novel at the time and had instant value in clinical situations.
“This is a technique whereby you give somebody a stimulus,” says Professor Furlong. “That stimulus could be visual; it could be an auditory stimulus; or it could be sensory - a touch stimulus or a movement stimulus. What Graham was interested in exploring was how you could record the specific response of the brain to that stimulus and use it to help evaluate what was going on in diseases of the brain.”
A Window onto the Brain
Yet despite the desire to unlock the workings of the mind, a true window onto the human brain has not been possible until relatively recently. Professor Furlong and his colleagues still use evoked responses, but they have added other approaches, such as Magnetoencephalography (or M.E.G.) - a functional neuroimaging technique which maps brain activity with very sensitive magnetometers. In 2000, Aston had the only M.E.G. scanner of its kind in the UK, but more recently other major neuroscience centres have followed the University’s lead.
The M.E.G. scanner is a helmet device comprising 300 sets of detection coils: “You sit with your head in the scanner helmet and the sensors are around your head without making contact. They are picking up the magnetic fields produced by brain cells, and so if we deliver a stimulus, let’s say a flash of light to the eyes, we can localise exactly where in the brain those signals are processed. This is because magnetic fields pass through the skull without distortion. So we’re taking established brain measuring techniques and we’re extending them to also study higher-order brain functions.”
M.E.G. technology has been a particularly useful in the pre-surgical evaluation of children - particularly those with brain tumours and certain types of epilepsy. Not only is the technique totally non-invasive, it allows the surgeon to see how close the problematic tissue is lying to important brain functions, and what risks are involved in operating on it.
More recently, Professor Furlong has been using the tool to study the brain’s response to pain. As he explains, pain is a challenging area to study because pain is a subjective and emotional response to a stimulus, and because there is no single part of the brain that is responsible for pain perception.
“What we’re trying to do is use neuroimaging techniques to provide an objective measure of pain, “ he says, “So in other words, if you could put someone in the scanner without them saying anything and be able to know from their brain patterns whether they’re suffering a painful response - that would be clinically very valuable.”
Despite these changes in technology, Professor Furlong feels that the aims of Aston Brain Centre have remained remarkably consistent with those of Professor Harding and the Clinical Neurophysiology Unit.
“Our core ambition remains the same, which is to develop techniques that can be translated to the healthcare environment - so measures of the brain and nervous system that tell us not only how the brain works, but also help us to differentiate between healthy, typically developing individuals from those who may have problems. Understanding the developing child brain by using these technologies is something that we have a particular expertise with.”