Former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has been in a vegetative state since his second stroke and the subsequent brain hemorrhage in 2006. Recently, however, brain researchers in Israel identified considerable activity in the political and military icon’s brain after a two-hour brain scan with the most sophisticated MRI available to them, the Philips INGENIA 3.OT, which the company claims is the first digital broadband MRI system delivering some of the best imaging available today.
After being shown pictures of his family, hearing the sound of his son’s voice, and being exposed to other sensory stimulation, researchers at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev’s Brain Imaging Research Center at the Soroka University Medical Center determined that Sharon’s brain showed activity in each of the corresponding regions specific to the stimuli, signaling to researchers that the information was being processed correctly.
Although many in the region and around the world are skeptical that evidence of brainwaves might eventually lead to Sharon regaining full consciousness, Dr. Ilan Shelef, the director of Medical Imaging at Soroka, said that this technology will benefit many others in the years to come.
“This is a dream come true,” said Shelef. “The unique location of the MRI here at Soroka University Medical Center enables us to [make] clinical research and basic science research. We really hope that many researchers will come out to the Negev.”
The state-of-the-art scanner features “dStream architecture” that gives researchers an excellent digital signal producing high quality images. The speed and accessibility built into the technology also make the process shorter for most patients and easier for the technicians.
However, it is the scanner’s capability to vividly display the brain’s activity in isolated centers that has already provided new information about autism for Dr. Galia Avidan, in the department of Psychology at BGU’s Zlotowski Center for Neuroscience, and part of the research team experimenting with the new technology.
Avidan said she is becoming increasingly persuaded that these kinds of conditions are actually a wiring or connectivity problem in the neural pathways of the brain.
“What we found is that for an individual with autism, who has difficulty extracting the emotional response in the person they are looking at, it turns out that they hardly look at the eyes of the person standing in front of them,” said Avidan. “They prefer scanning other features, such as the mouth, or even features around the hairline.”
Avidan’s team also studied people who have difficulty reading other people’s expressions or “face reading and face processing.” Although these subjects showed normal activity in the posterior portion of the brain, which recognizes faces, the activity in the anterior part of the brain was compromised, where the processing network is located.
“We try to understand how different areas of the brain process complex information,” said Avidan. “We scan subjects while they view different images and we examine the brain activation for these different stimuli.”
Dr. Martin Monti, a professor in the departments of psychology and neurosurgery at the University of California, Los Angeles, created the innovative study methodology.
Among the many tests performed on the former prime minister, the most encouraging being Sharon’s responses to external stimuli, researchers were less enthusiastic about the possibility that he is aware of what he is seeing, hearing, and feeling.
“Information from the external world is being transferred to the appropriate parts of Sharon’s brain,” Monti told BGU staff. “However, the evidence does not as clearly indicate whether he is consciously perceiving this information.”
Other team members included Prof. Alon Friedman and Tzvi Ganel of the BGU Zlotowski Center for Neuroscience, and Erez Freud, a doctoral candidate in BGU’s department of psychology.
BGU researchers have high hopes for the future of the MRI, its capabilities, and its applications in Israel and around the world.
“Knowing what sensory channels are intact in these patients is crucial for the family and the treating team to stimulate and interact with them,” Friedman told BGU staff.
Avidan believes it could lead to new therapies that could ultimately result in bringing families closer to their affected family member.
“We hope that by understanding the way the brain encodes and represents visual information and by understanding the psychological basis for visual perception,” said Avidan, “we may be able to create specific training regimes and specific rehabilitation programs.”