Brain Imaging Techniques

Posted on: 17 June 2015

Brain or neuroimaging techniques have been an important breakthrough for medicine, biology and psychology. They allow the inner structures and in some cases even the activity and functions of the brain to be viewed in detail without the need for surgery.


EEG (Electroencephalogrophy) measures the activity of the brain. A number of electrodes placed around the head detect the electrical signals produced by the brain. EEG scans allow a doctor or researcher to identify the different states of consciousness a person may go through. For example, EEG scans can show the difference between waking consciousness, sleeping or brain death, due to the changes in electrical signals.


Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) is a technique that is used in medicine and research. MRI scans use magnetic fields and radio waves to create an image of the inside of the body. This image is far more detailed than a standard x-ray. Whilst standard MRIs can only show the structure of the brain, they are of great use when looking for anomalies such as tumors and multiple sclerosis.   


Functional MRI (fMRI) scans are a more advanced technique that allow researchers to gain an understanding of the activity and functionality of the brain, rather than just its physical structure. fMRIs measure the changes in blood flow to different parts of the brain, and use this information to show how the brain is functioning (areas of the brain with high blood flow are likely to be active). fMRIs are particularly important for psychological research into which areas of the brain are responsible for specific mental functions. 


Computer Topography (CT or sometimes CAT scans) use x-rays to form an image of the structure of the brain. In a CT scan, the x-ray beam moves in a circle around the patient's head, allowing the researcher to gain many different views of the structure of the brain (compared to a standard x-ray). However, whilst CT scans can provide information about brain tumors and lesions, the image is less clear than other techniques such as MRI scans. 


PET stands for Positron Emission Topography. PET scans require a radioactive 'tracer' to be injected into the bloodstream of the patient. The tracer will be linked to a substance that is involved in brain function such as glucose, which is be used in respiration in active areas of the brain. The PET scanner will then be able to detect the presence of the tracer, allowing a 'map' of brain activity to be produced. This map can be used to assess whether there are any abnormalities in brain function. 

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