“Biobank” of functional brain images in the works – A normative database would help future research and diagnostics

Professor Lauri Parkkonen at Aalto University, in collaboration with other researchers, is working towards a “biobank” of functional brain measurements and other digital brain data to enable earlier and better diagnoses of brain disorders. Unfortunately, the current legislation recognises only physical tissue samples for a biobank.

Lauri Parkkonen is a Professor at the Department of Neuroscience and Biomedical Engineering and Director of Aalto Brain Centre, Aalto University. He has worked with brain imaging methods for his whole career. His research focuses on the development of the magnetoencephalography (MEG) methodology and on its application in brain research. The strength of MEG is in its ability to measure brain function at high temporal and good spatial resolution.

“The functioning of the brain, and how it can do what it seemingly effortlessly does, has interested me for so long that I don’t even remember when the interest started,” says Parkkonen.

MEG is a non-invasive medical imaging technique that utilises a set of sensors to detect and record the magnetic fields generated by the electrical activity of the brain. These sensors produce data that can help scientists understand how the brain responds to stimuli such as speech, music, images, and movies.

Moreover, MEG allows scientists to study how the brain develops and changes over time, and how different brain regions are connected and communicate with each other.

One of the most important applications of MEG is in the diagnosis and treatment planning of neurological disorders, such as epilepsy and brain tumours. MEG can identify and locate abnormal brain activity in patients and help doctors determine the best course of surgical treatment.

By providing detailed information about brain activity and connectivity, MEG is paving the way for new discoveries in neuroscience and improving our understanding of brain disorders.

“MEG is a niche in which we are among the best in the world,” Parkkonen says. “Otaniemi has a long tradition in both the development and application of MEG.”

Researchers are developing new clinical applications for MEG. For example, it may be used to map out how tumours change brain function. Unlike any other imaging modality, MEG could also be used to objectively determine the effects of mild head trauma. Another significant clinical application could be in the early diagnosis of progressive memory disorders.

“For example, at the early stages of Alzheimer’s, before clear-cut clinical symptoms, the diagnosis is difficult. Although there is no cure available yet, there are drugs that may slow down the progression of the disease, but these drugs should be given at the early stage of the disease to have an effect,” says Parkkonen.

However, even healthy brains differ from one another, resulting in interindividual variability in MEG recordings. Therefore, these potential clinical applications need a normative database so that MEG signals from a potentially diseased brain can be compared to a statistical model of a healthy brain. Parkkonen and his team have already largely developed a technical solution for this. They have been developing a digital biobank for brain images so that future diagnoses can be more accurate and research more streamlined. Their goal is to create an extensive collection of brain measurements of healthy people of all ages.

Helsinki Brain & Mind has been supporting Parkkonen by supplying his project with ERDF funding and inviting other key stakeholders in the capital region to participate.

As Parkkonen emphasises: “To make this databank succeed, it can’t be done alone. It is a joint effort, and it requires content contributions from many organisations.”

The team has also created a pilot measurement protocol that is ideal for collecting brain measurements for biobanking purposes.

“We needed to determine what stimuli we should present in the measurement to get versatile information about the brain’s functioning without the measurement taking too long,” Parkkonen says.

However, there is a significant obstacle in the way.

The current Finnish biobank law only recognises physical tissue samples, such as blood, and their derivatives as something that can be deposited in a biobank. There are no legal alternatives for reusing brain images.

“The law should be updated,” Parkkonen says. “It doesn’t recognise sole digital samples.”

Parkkonen, his team, and collaborators at HUS have tried to influence the lawmakers to include digital-only samples but revising the law is a long process.

As long as the current law remains unchanged, Parkkonen believes that collaboration with existing biobanks is an option. The large-scale genome project FinnGen that combines multiple biobanks has shown interest in collaborating with Parkkonen.

“By working with existing biobanks, we will be able to select the ideal study population to be invited for MEG measurements,” Parkkonen concludes.

Learn more:
Lauri Parkkonen
Professor at the Department of Neuroscience and Biomedical Engineering, Director of Aalto Brain Centre, Aalto University.
+358 40 508 9712

Helsinki Brain & Mind (HB&M) is a regional node of Neurocenter Finland’s national Brain & Mind network.