Project aims to unravel the enigma of brain injuries

FLAIR, SWI and T1 signal abnormalities.
Image: Olsen et al

Researchers are working on a project to analyse large data sets on brain imaging from around the world looking for connections relating to traumatic brain injury that aren’t discernible in single studies from individual centres.

People suffering from head injuries often undergo an MRI if doctors suspect a brain injury. But it can be difficult to predict from an MRI exactly what kinds of issues, if any, will arise from the trauma.

The Enigma Consortium (Enhancing Neuroimaging Genetics through Meta-Analysis), based at the University of Southern California, is bringing together researchers in imaging genomics to understand brain structure, function, and disease, based on brain imaging and genetic data.

The aims of the project have been outlined in the journal Brain Imaging and Behavior.

The brain contains roughly 300 billion brain cells that decode 100 trillion messages to enable us to think and act.

Emily Dennis is co-principal investigator for Enigma’s main group on brain injuries. This main brain injury group is made up of 170 researchers from 13 countries.

“By pooling our resources, in terms of data, computational power and intellectual expertise, we’ll be able to tackle some of the big unanswered questions in our field, such as how sex impacts outcome, whether there are subtypes within the broader patient population, or how to handle lesions in neuroimaging data,” Dennis said.

“Lots of brilliant scientists around the world have been working on these questions, and made a lot of progress, but this has been limited by the size of our individual samples.”

To start, the Enigma project will apply different types of advanced analysis methods to MRI data already collected in collaboration with researchers from the United States, Europe, Australia, the Middle East, South Africa and South America.

Alexander Olsen, an associate professor at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology’s (NTNU) Department of Psychology and a neuropsychologist at St Olavs Hospital in Trondheim, is co-leader of a subgroup focused on moderate to severe brain injuries with Frank Hillary from Penn State University.

MRI images today can tell clinicians the size of the injury and the kind of injury it is. But Olsen’s research group is working with research-based MRI methods that use more advanced algorithms and statistics.

“We’re working to develop better and more standardized ways of summarizing and making sense of the MRI data, and we hope to contribute to breakthroughs in research that will benefit patients,” Olsen says.

The heterogeneity in methods and ways of analysing, along with the heterogeneity of the patient group, has made this kind of standardization impossible so far. Making progress in methods development can only happen through an international collaborative project of this magnitude that includes several thousand datasets.

Another advantage of this effort to combine data that might otherwise seem impossible to combine— what researchers call “data harmonization” — is that it can enable researchers to use old data that has been already collected.

The knowledge and analysis methods that are developed will be shared openly with all interested researchers. Where the individual research groups approve it, arrangements will also be made for the enormous datasets to be open access.

Olsen, A., Babikian, T., Bigler, E.D. et al. Toward a global and reproducible science for brain imaging in neurotrauma: the ENIGMA adult moderate/severe traumatic brain injury working group. Brain Imaging and Behavior (2020).

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