Harry Pot­ter and the MRI of des­tiny

Modern Healthcare - - OUTLIERS ASIDES & INSIDES -

Harry Pot­ter swoops around on his broom, faces the bully Mal­foy and later runs into a three-headed dog. For sci­en­tists study­ing the brain’s ac­tiv­ity while read­ing, it’s the per­fect ex­cerpt from the young wizard’s many ad­ven­tures to give their sub­jects. Read­ing that sec­tion of

Harry Pot­ter and the Sor­cerer’s Stone ac­ti­vates some of the same re­gions in the brain that peo­ple use to per­ceive real peo­ple’s ac­tions and in­ten­tions. Sci­en­tists then map what a healthy brain does as it reads.

The re­search, pub­lished last week in the jour­nal PLoS One, has im­pli­ca­tions for study­ing read­ing dis­or­ders or re­cov­ery from a stroke. The team from Carnegie Mel­lon Univer­sity in Pitts­burgh was pleas­antly sur­prised that the ex­per­i­ment ac­tu­ally worked.

Neu­ro­sci­en­tists have painstak­ingly tracked how the brain pro­cesses a sin­gle word or sen­tence, look­ing for clues to lan­guage de­vel­op­ment or dys­lexia by fo­cus­ing on one as­pect of read­ing at a time. But read­ing a story re­quires mul­ti­ple sys­tems work­ing to­gether: rec­og­niz­ing how let­ters form a word, know­ing the def­i­ni­tions and gram­mar, keep­ing up with the char­ac­ters’ re­la­tion­ships and the plot twists. Mea­sur­ing all that ac­tiv­ity is re­mark­able, said Ge­orge­town Univer­sity neu­ro­sci­en­tist Guin­e­vere Eden, who helped pi­o­neer brain-scan­ning stud­ies of dys­lexia but wasn’t in­volved in the new work.

“It of­fers a much richer way of think­ing about the read­ing brain,” Eden said, call­ing the project “very clever and very ex­cit­ing.”

Dur­ing an MRI scan, eight adult vol­un­teers watched for nearly 45 min­utes as each word of Chap­ter 9 of

Harry Pot­ter and the Sor­cerer’s Stone was flashed for half a sec­ond onto a screen inside the scan­ner. Why that chap­ter? It has plenty of ac­tion and emo­tion, but there’s not too much go­ing on for sci­en­tists to track, said lead re­searcher Leila We­hbe, a Ph.D. stu­dent.

Leila We­hbe, a Ph.D. stu­dent at Carnegie Mel­lon Univer­sity, talks about the ex­per­i­ment, which used this MRI scan­ner.

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