Brain Awareness: The Science Behind Detecting Brain Diseases 

Did you know…

That some people can taste colours and shapes? That all human brains start off as female in the womb? Or that the number of synapses in the brain might either equate to or exceed the numbers of stars in the galaxy?  What about the fact that brain information can travel up to 268 miles per hour?

The human brain is considered the most complex machine in the world.  Nonetheless, as with most things, the wonders of the brain still have their downfalls.  On average, 1 in every 4 people is affected by a brain disease, in a given year.  Brain disease is a general term and can refer to various forms of diseases including, Alzheimer’s, dementia, Parkinson’s, schizophrenia, epilepsy, transient ischemic attack, and mental disorders.

What is PET?

In the 1950s, scientists could examine brains only after death, but new imaging procedures have enabled scientists to study the brain in living animals, including humans. One of the most extensively used techniques is the Positron Emission Tomography (PET). This technique can be used whilst the patient is awake and can thus study the relationship between the physiological alterations and behavioural ones. This is relatively safe to use in humans since it uses just a few micrograms of short-lived radioisotopes.  It functions by making use of a positron, which has a positive charge and the same mass as an electron.


Unstable isotopes are generated, which become stable again after a proton breaks down and dissipates the energy. The positron eventually meets an electron, which emits two gamma rays. Detectors then precisely record the position of these rays. Usually, PET scan results have a general colour scheme. Warm colours like red and orange indicate high activity whilst blue and violet indicate low activity.  The difference in brain activity from one location to another is a clear sign of the brain damage the patient is experiencing, with the range of damage on the brain not being the same for each disease.

PET gives better contrast and spatial resolution when compared to other techniques. For example, Single-Photon Emission Computed Tomography (SPECT), is another technique but less expensive.  SPECT shows how organs, in this case, the brain, work. Other techniques that may be used for investigating the brain are Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI). This examines structural changes in the brain. There is also Electroencephalography (EEG) which is used to record the electrical activity of the brain. 

MRI SCAN (Source)

With the help of these imaging procedures, scientists have just begun to understand what a mental illness is. 

One common misconception is that mental illness is not actually a disease. This is because spotting the symptoms is not always an easy task. The truth, however, is that mental illness has a biological basis, just like every other disease. In fact, early detection and early intervention are the best way to go. Mental health professionals can diagnose a patient with the help of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV), published by the American Psychiatric Association. Some examples include mood disorders such as depression, psychotic disorders like schizophrenia, eating disorders like anorexia, personality and anxiety disorders as well as addiction disorders such as substance abuse.

Since the gravity of the illness may vary from one person to another, treatment is not a “one size fits all”, but rather needs to be tailored to individual brains, instead of ticking off a list of symptoms.  The road to understanding patients suffering from mental illness is still a work in progress.

Celebrating Brain Awareness Week

Such advancements related to brain research and treatment are celebrated yearly and globally during Brain Awareness Week (BAW), usually held around mid-March.  In 2021 BAW will be celebrated from the 15th to the 21st of March. The initial BAW dates back to 1996, where 160 organisations from the United States were brought together by the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives (DABI) to discuss current research improvements.  

A webinar with the theme of “The Human Brain on Film” will still be held on the 16th of March at 7pm by ĊineXjenza, which is run by S-Cubed, the Malta Chamber of Scientists, with the support of Spazju Kreattiv and Tiskopri.  ĊineXjenza has invited three speakers, each of whom will be giving a short virtual presentation followed by an open discussion, where member audiences will be allowed to voice their opinions or even ask neuroscience-related questions to the expert panel. 

For more information, you can access the event page here. Tickets for this event are free of charge and can be booked here!

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and are not reflective of ‘A Bird’s Eye View’ as a whole.


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