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A Landmark Study of the Brain

NJIT Biomedical Engineering Professor Bharat Biswal's groundbreaking 1995 paper, "Functional Connectivity in the Motor Cortex of Resting Human Brain Using Echo-Planar MRI," was recently named one of the most influential in the history of MRI by the field's premier academic journal.

When cognitive neuroscientists were first mapping the brain two decades ago, they focused on the regions that were activated when people performed different tasks, such as tapping fingers or watching a movie. They filtered out what was considered “background noise,” the low-frequency fluctuations originating from biological operations like heart beat and respiration.

But Bharat Biswal, a graduate student at the Medical College of Wisconsin at the time, began asking questions about the value of this “noise” and conducted a study of the brain at rest that has since been identified as a landmark in the field of magnetic resonance imaging.

His early work has given rise to important research in clinical neuroscience, including the mapping of brains affected by diseases such as Alzheimer’s, as well as further research into developmental conditions such as autism, ADHD, dyslexia and into the maturation of brain networks more generally, as they become bi-lingual, for example.

Now the chair of the Department of Biomedical Engineering in NJIT’s Newark College of Engineering, Biswal’s groundbreaking 1995 paper, "Functional Connectivity in the Motor Cortex of Resting Human Brain Using Echo-Planar MRI" was recently named one of the most influential in the history of MRI by the field’s premier academic journal, Magnetic Resonance in Medicine. Biswal received the congratulations of his peers last month in a ceremony held at the annual meeting in Milan of the International Society for Magnetic Resonance in Medicine (ISMRM), where he was among 28 of the 30 authors whose work was judged to have most shaped the field over the past three decades.

Wiley, publisher of Magnetic Resonance in Medicine, has produced a special edition of the journal that contains the 30 papers in one printed volume.

“It is useful to look at the brain in a resting state, especially where people can’t perform a task, if they are comatose, following a stroke, or are infants or elderly people with Alzheimer’s disease, for example,” Biswal says. “Before that, people assumed that real data was only generated when the brain was activated to perform a task, and that there was nothing useful or interesting in the background.”

In the course of his research, Biswal also determined that the brain in a resting rest is highly organized. Using a technology called functional MRI – a series of pictures taken over time that is akin to a digital movie rather than a single image – he identified regions of the brain that are functionally connected and synchronize behaviors even during rest.

“The analogy of the brain at rest is a computer in sleep mode – the brain is still performing important functions,” he notes.

The field did not recognize the importance of his research for nearly a decade after it was published, however.

“My paper was initially rejected,” he recounts, adding that its importance became clearer as more biomedical engineers entered the field of neuroscience and began exploring the data.

To further research in the area, Biswal and Michael Milham, a cognitive neuroscientist and the founding director of the Center for the Developing Brain at the Child Mind Institute in New York, co-founded a database five years ago of well over 1,000 functional fMRIs of healthy subjects of various ages that can be downloaded by anyone in the field.