Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) gives a more detailed 3-D picture than a CT scan. An MRI relies on an intense magnetic field generated in a cylinder that surrounds the patient. It allows precise mapping of the physical shape of the brain. Its magnetic field is so powerful that it causes some of the atoms inside the brain to jerk into alignment. Then a series of radio waves from the MRI scanner bounce off the affected atoms and push them slightly out of line. When the energy from the radio signals is turned off, the atoms move back into their magnetic alignment, emitting telltale energy patterns along the way.

Addictive drugs work by mimicking neurotransmitters or altering their work. Brain scans reveal physical changes in the synaptic activity of a drug user. The drug known as Ecstasy, for example, can permanently damage neurons that produce serotonin.

Computers read these minuscule bits of energy and assemble images of cross-sections of the brain. Slices can be placed atop each other, like the layers of a cake, to represent the entire brain in three dimensions, or they can be examined individually, providing a closer look at localized phenomena. Comparisons of MRI scans of a single brain over time can show its growth-or reveal its deterioration.


WHEN THE DENTIST asked British philosopher Bertrand Russell where he felt pain, Russell replied, with humor and honesty, “In my mind, of course.” Russell knew the brain uses the senses to collect data about the world and construct a version of “reality.” Whether that world actually exists independent of the mind makes little difference to the sufferer of a tooth- ache-the pain hurts just the same. In fact, some philosophers, such as George Berkeley (1685-1753), have questioned whether “reality” exists.

In addition to mere structure, an MRI can also capture a snapshot of thought. A variation called a functional MRI, or f-MRI, builds upon the fact that a blood cell’s magnetic properties change according to how much oxygen it contains. Receptor cells use oxygen as they take in signals from surrounding cells; burning oxygen causes cells to require more oxygen-rich blood. As blood surges toward neurons where synapses are firing with thought, emotion, or other impulses, the oxygen they carry gives off a traceable signature of radio waves. Different thoughts light up different areas of the brain in an MRI. The processes of peaking, reading, appreciating humor and music, and recognizing faces illuminate various groups of neurons. MRI techniques thus help localize areas associated with certain brain functions.

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