For many diseases of the brain, particularly various kinds of dementia, early-stage diagnosis is usually challenging because of the lack of accurate, objective diagnostic tools.
To improve this situation, Aalto University, together with the Universities of Helsinki, Oulu, Turku, and Tampere, as well as Finland’s university hospitals, decided to establish a national network for collecting brain imaging data to a biobank.
“Our idea is to first collect brain imaging data from healthy individuals to a normative database, which we would then use to model normal variations in resting-state brain activity,” explains Professor Lauri Parkkonen from Aalto University. Parkkonen mentions that brain imaging data of patients and healthy individuals have been compared in previous studies, but the typical group size of approximately 20 people has not been sufficient for proper modeling of individual variations. “When this type of model is ready, the use of brain imaging methods in diagnostics will become more efficient.”
Two complementary functional brain imaging techniques are being utilized in the pilot project; magnetoencephalography (MEG) and a special variant of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), called magnetic resonance encephalography (MREG), which features ten times higher temporal resolution than conventional fMRI. The project is also exploring IT solutions related to the recording and processing of brain imaging data that are currently being collected and analyzed.
“With these ultra-high temporal resolution techniques and their combinations, the work of the consortium will hopefully provide us with new knowledge of the brain’s functionality.” Parkkonen assumes that changes in functional networks of brain regions may be an effective indicator for identifying certain brain diseases in their early stages.
The home base for the MEG imaging subproject and overall project coordination is Aalto University, while the core expertise for the MREG imaging technique is at the University of Oulu, in Professor Vesa Kiviniemi’s research group.
From a pilot project to a biobank
During the pilot project period, solutions are being developed that will utilize the infrastructure of the National Institute for Health and Welfare (THL) Biobank. “The general concept of biobanks is that certain types of measurements can be procured from a single source in a controlled manner and anonymously linked to other measurements or cohort studies.” Parkkonen considers the biobank created through the project as an opportunity to combine datasets to study phenomena that could not have been imagined during the data collection phase.
Are MEG biomarkers useful for analyzing EEG measurements?
On a global scale, MEG devices are still rare, mainly due to their high costs. When comparing the number of MEG systems to the country’s total population, Parkkonen considers Finland a pioneer. There are three MEG systems in Finland: at Aalto University, Helsinki University Hospital (HUS), and the University of Jyväskylä. Parkkonen hopes the project’s MEG measurement results would also lead to biomarkers identifiable in EEG measurements. “Through common biomarkers, it would be possible to develop an EEG-based application that is inexpensive, relatively user-friendly, and readily available for patient use through the extensive EEG infrastructure in our hospitals.”