World’s biggest body scanning project yields first results

iStockphoto/Hayden Bird

It is no secret that human body (and brain especially) works in somewhat strange ways that can be hard to decipher. Only recently, scientists presented a new brain map that features our “CPU” in painstaking detail. Still, narrowing down what exactly is responsible for certain severe diseases is no small task. But now, medical researchers worldwide got to take a peek at the initial results of the world’s largest health imaging study. The remarkable data stemming from the first 5,000 participants of UK Biobank that took part in the study could lead to a better understanding of brain diseases (such as dementia or Alzheimer’s) and how they correlate with a broad range of other diseases (such as osteoporosis, arthritis, cancer, heart attacks and stroke) and disease risks.

Having launched in April 2016 — after a number of years of planning — UK Biobank already scanned 10,000 people and hopes to achieve the ambitious goal of imaging all 100,000 of them. In addition to brain scans, the scientists also took images of heart, body, bone and blood vessels. An important objective of the UK Biobank is to provide a resource for discovery of new insights into diseases (like Alzheimer’s), which demands scanning healthy subjects years or decades before they develop symptoms. The collected data could guide the development of earlier targeted treatment that could in the future prevent major diseases from ever happening.

“We are using cutting-edge MRI scans and Big Data analysis methods to get the most comprehensive window into the brain that current imaging technology allows. These results are just a first glimpse into this massive, rich dataset that will emerge in the coming years. It is an unparalleled resource that will transform our understanding of many common diseases.” explains Professor Karla Miller, one of the co-authors of the paper on brain imaging part of UK Biobank.

The high quality of the imaging data and very large number of subjects allowed researchers to identify more than 30,000 significant associations between the many different brain imaging measures and the non-imaging measures. Results reported include:

  • Associations between people’s speed of thought and the size of brain structures. These effects increased in strength as people aged.
  • A negative correlation between brain activity during a simple shape-matching task and intelligence. This might be because the people who scored more highly on the cognitive tests needed to use less of their brain to carry out the task.
  • A pattern of strong associations between higher blood pressure, greater alcohol consumption, and several measures that could reflect injury to connections in the brain.
  • Or even an unusual pattern showing an association between brain images and cheese consumption.

Professor Steve Smith, one of the paper’s co-authors, identifies 3 types of brain imaging conducted in the study which will reveal how the working of the brain can change with aging and disease. The first is “structural imaging” — that tells us about brain anatomy — the shapes and sizes of the different parts of the brain. Another kind — “functional MRI” — tells us about complex patterns of brain activity. The third kind — “diffusion MRI” tells us about the brain’s wiring diagram.

Within another 5 years — once UK Biobank completes the scanning of all 100,000 participants — this will become by far the largest brain imaging study ever conducted. It is important to emphasize that UK Biobank is an “observational” study that characterises a cross-section of individuals. Thus, it’s not always straightforward to establish which factors cause which, but such results should help scientists to define much more precise questions to address in the future search for ways of preventing or treating brain disease.

Michal Madaras

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