RIP Jack Belliveau, first person to use fMRI to measure brain activity

Sad news that Jack Belliveau has passed away at age 55:

Dr. Belliveau tried a different approach. He had developed a technique to track blood flow, called dynamic susceptibility contrast, using an M.R.I. scanner that took split-second images, faster than was usual at the time. This would become a standard technique for assessing blood perfusion in stroke patients and others, but Dr. Belliveau thought he would try it to spy on a normal brain in the act of thinking or perceiving.

“He went out to RadioShack and bought a strobe light, like you’d see in a disco,” said Dr. Bruce Rosen, director of the Martinos Center and one of Dr. Belliveau’s advisers at the time. “He thought the strobe would help image the visual areas of the brain, where there was a lot of interest.”

Dr. Belliveau took images of the brain while volunteers watched the strobe, then compared those readings with images taken while the strobe was off, subtracting one from the other.

“It didn’t work,” Dr. Rosen said. “He got nothing.”

He tried again, finding new volunteers and this time outfitting them with goggles that displayed a checkerboard pattern. “That did it,” Dr. Rosen said. “The visual areas lighted up beautifully.”

On Nov. 1, 1991, the journal Science published the findings in a paperby Dr. Belliveau and his colleagues at Massachusetts General Hospital.

So young, and to die from complications of gastroenteritis is scary.

fMRI gets a lot of flak because it has a tendency to be oversold. I just wrote an overwrought piece on Medium about that very topic, and why for all the criticisms it is a crucial piece in the neuroscience puzzle (more on that tomorrow.)

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