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The brain: neuronal activity revealed by water diffusion

A research team led by Denis Le Bihan (CEA) at the NeuroSpin neuroimaging center has just demonstrated that water diffusion slows down in activated regions of the brain.

Published on 25 June 2013

This phenomenon is more closely correlated with the electrical activity of neurons than with changes in blood flow, on which functional MRI is currently based. In principle, this slower diffusion is reflected in dynamic changes in the microscopic structure of the cerebral cortex, such as its cells swelling when activated.

This “neuromechanical” coupling between cell shape and function thus offers a radically different method for functional brain imaging that could represent brain function more accurately than the neurovascular coupling on which functional MRI is based today. This new method should also give scientists greater insight into the cell processes underlying neuronal activation and how water is involved in them. These results have just been published in PNAS.

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