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fMRI – reading the brain

Observer Magazine – September 2006
Volume 19, Number 9
Thinking It Over, fMRI and Psychological Science

By Christie Nicholson

In 1880 an Italian peasant named Bertino survived a horrific accident that cracked open his skull and left sections of his brain exposed. Surprisingly Bertino felt fine, even though one could see blood pulsating through his frontal lobes. His physician, Angelo Mosso, noticed something else very strange. Every time church bells rang in town, blood surged through Bertino’s lobes. Mosso took a guess that the blood surged because the bells reminded Bertino of prayer. When Mosso asked Bertino directly, “Do the bells make you think of prayer?” Bertino answered, “Yes.” At that moment blood again engorged the exposed veins. Then Mosso asked, “What is eight by 12?” Bertino answered, “96.” More blood pulsed through. The link Mosso had stumbled upon was perhaps the first connection made between blood flow and brain activity — a serendipitous connection that, more than century later, would become the foundation for a revolutionary tool to study the brain: functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI.

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