University of Texas at Austin

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Neuroscientist conducts deep study of a brain, his own

Early this Tuesday morning, and every Tuesday morning through November 2013, neuroscientist Russell Poldrack will wake up, take off his headband-like sleep monitor, and tell it to wirelessly send data about his night’s sleep to a database.

Then he’ll log in to a survey app on his computer, and provide a subjective report on how well he slept, whether he’s sore, and what his blood pressure and pulse rate are. He’ll step on a scale, which will send his weight and body mass index to another database. Then he’ll skip his usual paleo-style breakfast and head to his office on the campus of The University of Texas at Austin, where he’s a professor of neuroscience and psychology and the director of the Imaging Research Center (IRC).

Poldrack has been following this routine every Tuesday since the fall of 2012. It’s part of his year-long quest to study a single human brain (his own, as it happens) in more detail than a single brain has ever been studied before.

At 7:30 a.m. every Tuesday, he’ll head down to the basement of the building and lie down for 10 minutes, thinking about nothing in particular, while his brain is scanned by the IRC’s magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner. Immediately after the scan he’ll fill out more surveys.

This story was written by Daniel Oppenheimer. It appeared on Texas Science.

When that’s done he’ll walk over to the student health center, have some blood drawn, and drop that blood sample off at the university’s genome sequencing facility. The scientists there will analyze the blood for evidence of which of Poldrack’s genes were expressed that day.

If he exercises, he’ll wear a heart monitor. The data will go into a database. On other days of the week, he may also submit to a high-resolution structural MRI, or perhaps work with his neuroscience colleague Alex Huk to perform high-resolution scans that can identify specific regions of his visual cortex.

Neuroscientist Russ Poldrack and his Tuesday morning appointment, the MRI.

Neuroscientist Russ Poldrack and his Tuesday morning appointment, the MRI.

That evening Poldrack will do more surveys and reports. He’ll note, among other things, how much time he spent outdoors, the severity of his psoriasis during the day, how much alcohol he drank, what he ate, how stressed he was, how good his gut health was, and how his mood fluctuated over the course of the day. Then he’ll strap his sleep monitor back on and go to bed.

Old-Fashioned Science

Not every day of Poldrack’s life, during the year of the “Russ-ome” Project, is as intensely tracked as Tuesday. But every day he fills out his surveys, wears his monitors, and feeds more data into a series of datasets that will become so rich that by the end of the year, when the experimental phase ends, he’ll need to use the supercomputers at the Texas Advanced Computing Center to make sense of it all.

“There’s a way in which it’s a very old-fashioned project,” Poldrack says. “There’s a long history of scientists doing experiments, sometimes crazy experiments, on themselves. It doesn’t happen much anymore, but in this case I couldn’t expect a volunteer to give up this much of their time. However, I’m obsessive enough that I thought I could actually pull it off, and I have the resources to do it.”

Poldrack hatched the idea, in part, after some fascinating conversations with Laurie Frick, an Austin-based artist whose work focuses on the “Quantified Self” movement–people who use monitors and sensors to track and then “hack” their lives.

The paradigm appealed to the quantified self-improver in Poldrack, who’s lost more than 20 pounds over the past few years by paying close attention to his exercise and diet habits. It also suggested a unique way to answer some of the big research questions he’s been contemplating about the connections between mind and body, time and change.

“There is a hypothesis out there, for example, that immune system function is related to mood,” he says. “We know you can induce depression by giving people inflammatory cytokines. So let’s say we want to test whether inflammation is related to mood. We’ll measure levels of inflammatory cytokines from the metabolic analyses of my blood plasma. We will also measure gene expression in known immune system pathways from the transcriptome analysis. We will get imaging data and focus on brain regions we know to be related to mood. And then we’ll look at the subjective mood measurements. Which days was I feeling down? What was happening in all these other systems on those days? We should be able to bring all that together in a way that wasn’t possible before.”

Once all the data are in, towards the end of 2013, Poldrack is planning to test this very hypothesis, along with a few others. He’s also hoping to discover new hypotheses by applying sophisticated data-mining techniques to the mountain of information he’s accumulating.

“Maybe we’ll see that particular gene networks move up and down in sync with a particular brain network,” he says. “And maybe there will be something happening metabolically, or in the subjective mood reports, that parallels this pattern. Then we can drill down.”

Discovery Science

Poldrack cautions that any pattern he discovers, previously hypothesized or newly discovered, won’t have the scientific weight it would if he were doing a study of multiple subjects. But it will point the way forward to more refined hypotheses, which can be tested by more traditional means.

“Any finding that’s just from me could be a statistical fluke,” he says, “but the hope is that it will be meaningful as a driver of new hypotheses. It’s discovery science.”

Robert Bilder, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at UCLA, sees Poldrack’s project as a bold, and potentially important, first step to filling in some of the big gaps in the field’s knowledge.

“Even in the cases where we’ve done the most scans of a single brain, we’re talking a few measurements separated by weeks, months or even years,” says Bilder, who is director of a major NIH-funded consortium dedicated to explore links between the human genome and complex brain functions. “As a result we don’t even know what’s normal in terms of day-to-day variation. Russ’s project won’t tell us what’s normal, because it’s just one brain, but I think it’ll give us a sense of what’s possible. We’ll see the day-to-day fluctuation, see what kind of variability there is.”

Bilder also sees the project in more futurist terms. Today Poldrack is trying to map his brain. There may come a tomorrow, not so far off, when we’re uploading our brains, or downloading software directly into them. The sooner we start asking questions about what these changes are going to be and mean the better prepared we’ll be to handle them.

“ Let’s say we have Russ Poldrack’s genome, and we know everything about his molecular expression, and how that correlates to brain states,” says Bilder. “What happens when he dies? Do we clone him? Do we reprogram the clone with the brain patterns of Russ right before he died? Right now this is science fiction, but it may not be in 50 years. That’s close enough that we should be thinking and talking about it.”

For now, Poldrack says the goal of the project, as of all his research, is more present-focused, though perhaps no less ambitious: to help us understand ourselves better so that we can exert more control over our lives.

“It’s about optimizing ourselves,” he says. “That might mean getting smarter if you’re already smart, or losing weight effectively, or figuring out how to best titrate your medicines if you have depression,” he says. “It might mean using gene expression analyses, or even something as simple as an EEG, to monitor the efficacy of a treatment. We know almost nothing, right now, about how individuals change over longer time scales. We don’t know what’s possible.”

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