Brief introducton to NIM
A short intro to the neuroimaging researched for self-regulation and integrative medicine
Have you imagined a world where people can increase efficiency at work, by regulating their brain and controlling their emotions? And it may be where people can develop their muscles by imagery, without any physical action.
At KHU, Prof. Kyungmo Park and his research team of NIM lab(Neuroimaging and Integrative Medicine) in the Dept. of Biomedical Engineering are exploring these possibilities by using neuroimaging and bio-signal processing technology for a neuroscience and clinical research.
Q. You and your team are doing ingenious research that some people might find fanciful. How did you become interested in this research?
A. My initial major in college was Korean medicine (a form of traditional Asian medicine). Usually, people think that traditional medicine is a little mysterious even though it has been practiced. But mysterious only means that it has not yet been explained. I thought that some parts of the mysterious but useful ideas were explained and could be more developed by the brain science and thus I became interested in neuroscience. I also wanted to explore the whole human body, not only some parts of it, and the goals of our research are firstly to explore how the traditional practices including acupuncture, meditation, and qigong work as useful medical interventions, secondly to device novel interventional technologies using real-time fMRI neurofeedback (rt-fMRI NF) and multi-fMRI scanning (hyper scanning fMRI) so that we can enhance the efficacy of these practices, and finally to help to understand how the Mind and Body (which are falsely framed and defined) are integrated.
Q. You and your team use neuroimaging and bio-signal processing technology in this research. Could you explain these technologies to people unfamiliar with them?
A. Imaging is making a visual representation, and neuroimaging is scanning a human brain. MRI is an example of neuroimaging. It allows us to see the structure and activities of the brain without opening someone’s head in the process. There are two types of neuroimaging: structural and functional. And through the bio-signal processing technology, we can find the relationships between a person’s action and brain, by scanning bio-signals. This technology combines engineering, medical science and biology.
Q. How is neuroimaging used in this research?
A. We mostly use functional neuroimaging, to visualize the brain’s activity rather than its structure. Patients observe a certain part or network of brain stimulated by a specific activity, and later use these observations to change the activity if the region or the network to treat their problems including pain, affectivity, and cognition. If patients know what occurred in their brains, they can learn to regulate their brains by themselves, which is real-time fMRI neurofeedback (rt-fMRI NF).
Q. What a groundbreaking study! How exactly are we able to control our brain? Can you give an example?
A. It is possible if one knows how motor imagery activates motor execution. To give a medical example, if we instruct a stroke patient with a paralyzed right side to walk using her right side limbs, she definitely uses her healthy left side limbs. But if we band her left arm and instruct her to hold a cup using her right arm, although she cannot use her right arm, she will consciously imagine that she is holding the cup with right hand. Such imagery activates a specific part of the brain. In this process, we analyze their brainwaves, and give her a score and feedback. This technology is called, real time fMRI neurofeedback. It allows her to figure out the state of the brain precisely and make a patient activate that part better on the next attempt. We are applying this idea to affective disorders and cognitive deficits and the patients would have employ breathing technique, motor movement, mental regulations, or the mix of them which come from traditional practices like meditation, qigong, and Yoga.
Q. Besides the medical aspects, are there any other applications for this research?
A. Yes. It can be used in daily life for self-control. If we want to know what emotions people have, we could ask them. But if we want to know how these emotions began, we can check the brain and bio-signals. People usually think only about the subjective part of emotions. However, emotion is not only a subjective experience, but also a process in the brain and a physiological phenomenon. Therefore, if we know how to affect this process, we can control ourselves at any time. Imagine that you are working on a laptop. If you saw your brain activities related to your current task on your laptop screen while you are working, you would know when your brain becomes optimized for work. Later you could try to reproduce those optimal conditions and increase efficiency.
Q. At present, fMRI is too big to have one at home. Then how we can utilize this without researchers or doctors?
A. In the past, an electrocardiogram machine which records the electrical activity of the heart was really big, but it has become much smaller. Likewise, one day every people will use very tiny device which has same functionality with fMRI we are using now. For more practical applications, we try to transfer our methodologies to Functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) and EEG system
Q. Do you have any plans about further research?
A. Like a motor imagery, there are also musical imagery and dance imagery. If we were able to read and record a song that a person sings in her head, we could make music easily through this technology. Then we could create music and improvise without expert knowledge in composing. If it is showed up as an application, I think it would be a very interesting app.
“Many people consider the body and mind as divided and even opposed to each other. However, for neuroscientists, there is no essential difference between them. If this research succeeds, people will no longer think of the body and mind as separate things.”