Spring 1995 Mission

Neuroscience on the 'Net'

San Antonio is a crossroads in cyberspace for neuroscientists because of BrainMap, a unique data base developed at the Health Science Center's Research Imaging Center (RIC).

BrainMap is a working prototype that presents brain images from hundreds of experiments. Researchers contribute their findings via Internet, the global computer network. BrainMap performs differently than conventional data bases; it searches topics by image, not just keywords.

"This is the best brain-mapping data base in the world," said Jack L. Lancaster, PhD, who heads the RIC's large team of computer software development specialists. Dr. Lancaster developed BrainMap with Peter T. Fox, MD, the center's director.

Here's how BrainMap works:

Users enter and ask to view a region, quadrant or "slice" of a graphically depicted brain. Numbers appear on the brain image. The numbers correspond to studies held in the data base. A search of behavior topics, for example, gives the user a choice of motion, cognition, perception or emotion. Picking motion, for instance, the user sees a submenu and may select subtopics. Choose "motion execution," for example. BrainMap fetches a list of eight scientific papers containing 23 experiments, complete with their data, graphics and text.

Funded by the E.J. LowBeer Foundation in Montreal, BrainMap was conceived as a forerunner of a federation of data bases that would serve the numerous areas of study that involve neuroscience. Dr. Fox said the federation would be designed so researchers in diverse scientific disciplines could understand and share data.

"Envision this," he wrote in a recent issue of the journal Science. "Online access to all relevant results produced by any laboratory in the world before designing your next experiment. Alternatively, imagine similar access to aid in interpreting an unexpected result."

BrainMap, online since December 1993, is only the beginning. Drs. Fox and Lancaster are creating a new data base that would establish an atlas of the brain. SPAMap, short for "structural probability anatomy" map, would give researchers the relative probability of finding a function or anatomical part in any given area of the brain.

SPAMap promises to be the most definitive brain atlas ever. It will compile magnetic resonance brain images of 500 persons. The current atlas dates back to 1967, prior to modern imaging technology, and is based on postmortem samples, not the living brain.

With funding from the National Institute of Mental Health, Dr. Fox and his staff are working with two other institutions -- UCLA and the Montreal Neurological Institute.

"Drs. Fox and Lancaster are developing a data base methodology that would allow other researchers to access that data so new analyses can be made. This is a tremendous undertaking and it will shape the direction of the imaging field," said Michael I. Posner, PhD, cognitive psychologist from the University of Oregon and co-author of the book Images of Mind.

The data base developments underscore the new, rapid pace of exchanging scientific information via computer. A decade ago, genetic researchers opened the door by using Internet, or the "Net," as many users call it, in the international project to map the human genome.

Today, neuroscientists submit research papers and digital images by electronic mail. The work appears quickly in data bases or electronic journals on Internet.

"Sure, the Internet provides low-cost entertainment: transcontinental trivia browsing by information junkies; late-night online chat; electronic junk mail; and even pornography," Dr. Fox said. "But a large and growing community of 'wired' neuroscientists have found loftier ways to use the Net."

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