Forthergillian Lecture. Imaging human brain function

Trans Med Soc Lond. 2000:117:53-63.


The non-invasive brain scanning techniques introduced a quarter of a century ago have become crucial for diagnosis in clinical neurology. They have also been used to investigate brain function and have provided information about normal activity and pathogenesis. They have been used to investigate functional specialization in the brain and how specialized areas communicate to generate complex integrated functions such as speech, memory, the emotions and so on. The phenomenon of brain plasticity is poorly understood and yet clinical neurologists are aware, from everyday observations, that spontaneous recovery from brain lesions is common. An improved understanding of the mechanisms of recovery may generate new therapeutic strategies and indicate ways of modulating mechanisms that promote plastic compensation for loss of function. The main methods used to investigate these issues are positron emission tomography and magnetic resonance imaging (M.R.I.). M.R.I. is also used to map brain structure. The techniques of functional brain mapping and computational morphometrics depend on high performance scanners and a validated set of analytic statistical procedures that generate reproducible data and meaningful inferences from brain scanning data. The motor system presents a good paradigm to illustrate advances made by scanning towards an understanding of plasticity at the level of brain areas. The normal motor system is organized in a nested hierarchy. Recovery from paralysis caused by internal capsule strokes involves functional reorganization manifesting itself as changed patterns of activity in the component brain areas of the normal motor system. The pattern of plastic modification depends in part on patterns of residual or disturbed connectivity after brain injury. Therapeutic manipulations in patients with Parkinson's disease using deep brain stimulation, dopaminergic agents or fetal mesencephalic transplantation provide a means to examine mechanisms underpinning plastic change. Other models of plastic change, such as normal visuospatial learning or re-establishing speech comprehension after cochlear implantation in the deaf illustrate how patterns of brain function adapt over time. Limitations of the scanning techniques and prospects for the future are discussed in relation to new developments in the neuroimaging field.

Publication types

  • Lecture

MeSH terms

  • Brain / physiopathology*
  • Brain Diseases / diagnosis*
  • Humans
  • Image Processing, Computer-Assisted
  • Imaging, Three-Dimensional
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging*
  • Motor Activity*
  • Neuronal Plasticity
  • Radiographic Image Interpretation, Computer-Assisted