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Médecine et santé

When the brain reveals its secrets

Temporo?spatial distribution of lesions can be monitored through new methods which considerably reduce the time required for analysing large quantities of data.

Thanks to the development of state-of-the-art morphometric techniques, specialists in image processing and medical imaging and clinicians are today offering new tools to researchers and therapists. Brought together in a European project, these partners have considerably refined the study of brain structures through magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Their work gives an impetus to research but also to the treatment and follow-up of patients. Multiple sclerosis, schizophrenia and amnesia are the first
diseases affected by this advance.


Non-invasive and painless, magnetic resonance imaging makes it possible to explore the brain from the inside. By providing a three-dimensional display of very small structures, it meets the requirements of diagnosis and patient follow?up as well as the imperatives of research into the causes and development of neurological or psychiatric diseases. However, in order to be able to fully benefit from such a powerful tool, doctors and researchers must be able to produce and compare a large number of images obtained through MRI, either for an individual patient or a large number of patients. Through these systematic techniques and their automation, subjective observations are combined with objective, reliable and reproducible data which can be compared statistically.

Identifying structures and tissues, quantifying the differences

The Biomorph project has brought together European experts in medical imaging and image processing and clinicians who together wish to improve morphometric techniques, i.e. the automated measurement of the size and shape of brain structures through MRI. Alan Colchester, coordinator of Biomorph and professor of clinical neurosciences and medical imaging at the Kent Institute of Medicine and Health Sciences of the University of Kent in Canterbury (UK), explains that in this project new computer techniques have already been developed and tested for correcting MRI image defects, segmenting anatomical structures and lesions, characterising forms, quantifying asymmetries and analysing time series. At the same time detailed documents were collected on the clinical history of patients whose MRI images are being re-examined.

Once techniques have been worked out that facilitate identification of brain structures and tissues on the images, it will still be necessary to localise their boundaries and record their shape digitally. The partners in the project have developed algorithms enabling a geometric description of structures to quantify similarities and differences.

Multiple sclerosis, schizophrenia and amnesia

In multiple sclerosis these new computer methods allow better identification of the spatial distribution and temporal development of lesions which will help to elucidate the mechanisms responsible for triggering symptoms and evaluating treatment efficacy. Alan Colchester explains that in schizophrenia the team confirmed, together with British specialists and Professor Lynn DeLisi of New York, who discovered it, the existence of changes in the asymmetry normally present between the right and left hemisphere of the brain. A meticulous study of these will provide valuable indices on the mechanisms underlying this disease whose definition remains highly controversial. In collaboration with Professor Mike Kopelman of London, moreover, changes have been observed in the volume of particular brain structures in patients with specific types of amnesia.

MRI imaging, a technique in full development, enables a doctor to "see" the brain as never before, obliging him to interpret the unknown and enabling him to make an ever finer distinction between "normal" and "abnormal". The Biomorph coordinator notes that in biology it is indispensable to quantify normal variations in order to define what is abnormal. This is why in this project numerous observations are also made on healthy subjects. For instance, in a patient free of symptoms one or two brain lesions are often observed similar to those found in multiple sclerosis. This only means that the subject has a small risk of subsequently developing symptoms of the disease.

The techniques developed in the course of the project could furthermore be applied in research, development and evaluation of new therapies for multiple sclerosis as they make it possible to meticulously monitor the spatio?temporal development of lesions under the effect of medicines. Similarly, if the significance of structural changes in cases of schizophrenia is confirmed, MRI imaging could provide a means of monitoring treatment of this disease. MRI imaging is increasingly being used in the pharmaceuticals industry in developing new therapeutic molecules.


Development and Validation of Techniques for Brian Morphometry



Alan Colchester
Fax: +44-1227-827205

- University of Kent, Canterbury, United Kingdom (coordinator)
- Laboratory for Medical Imaging Research, KULeuven, Heverlee, Belgium
- Institut National de Recherches en Informatique et en Automatique, Valbonne-Sophia Antipolis, France
- Communication Technology Laboratory, Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule, Zurich, Switzerland
- Department of Psychiatry, The Chancellor, Master and Scholars of the University of Oxford, United Kingdom

New 3D brain imaging process through magnetic resonance. On left: cross-sectional view showing (in red) the perimeter of the brain surface analysed. On right: image in 3E.