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Behind the picture: When Mr Scott met his brain

by Guest Author on 15 Jan 2016

This week Mr John Scott, a member of the Lothian Birth Cohort 1936, was able to meet his grey and his white matter in models made by the Centre for Cognitive Ageing and Cognitive Epidemiology (CCACE) and the National Museum of Scotland which are due to form part of a new gallery opening in summer 2016. Sylvie Kruiniger talks to CCACE’s Dr Simon Cox about the project.

Mr Scott holds a 3D print of his brain

(Image copyright: National Museums of Scotland)

How many people can say that they have held their own brain in their hands? In this picture, Mr Scott is doing just that. Its size, shape and folds perfectly match those housed inside his head. The 3D print of his brain’s outer surface will sit alongside a strikingly beautiful image of his white matter etched in glass at the National Museums of Scotland from summer 2016.

Mr Scott’s brain has been imaged numerous times over the past decade as part of studies of the Lothian Birth Cohort 1936 (LBC1936). The team, led by Professor Ian Deary (whose office we have visited in a previous post), used different types of  MRI scan generated by the University of Edinburgh’s Brain Research Imaging Centre to generate the two objects for the museum’s collection. His white matter was mapped by a diffusion tensor MRI and, for the 3D print, his cortical surface was mapped by a standard structural scan.

Mr Scott visits an image of his white matter etched in glass

(Image copyright: National Museums of Scotland)

In 1947 Mr Scott was one of 70,805 eleven year olds who were given an intelligence test as part of a survey of all Scottish schoolchildren born in 1936. In 2004, as these schoolchildren were approaching 70, researchers began to recruit them for LBC1936.

Over 1,000 others were recruited for extensive follow-up testing at the Centre for Cognitive Ageing and Cognitive Epidemiology. Those taking part have been followed up every three years throughout their seventies, creating a vast amount of data for scientific study. The data collected from the cohort has formed a basis for hundreds of scientific publications.

Dr Simon Cox, MRC Imaging Fellow on the LBC1936 study, said: “Not only have the cohort undergone several long brain scans, but they also sit an extensive cognitive test battery, provide blood and urine for biomarker and genetic analysis, provide measures of physical activity and fitness, and complete questionnaires on a wide range of important topics.”

Grey matter is made up of numerous cell bodies whereas white matter is largely composed of myelinated axons which are projections of nerve cells covered in a white, fatty layer. Dr Cox explains these areas are interesting to the researchers because: “on average, grey matter shrinks in volume and becomes thinner with age, and the fatty, insulating covering on the white matter degrades, making information transfer across the brain less efficient.

“However, we see a great deal of variation in how much these changes affect our cohort members. That leads us to the question: which factors differentiate those who are not experiencing a great deal of decline from those who exhibit many more of these effects?”

Researchers can also learn a lot from the brains of well-studied people, such as cohort members, after they have died, and many of the LBC1936 cohort members have opted to donate their brains to the Lothian Birth Cohort 1936 Brain Tissue Bank, part of the MRC’s UK Brain Banks Network.

Sylvie Kruiniger

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