When we look up at the bland façades of office buildings around L.A., it's easy to imagine accountants and insurance salesmen toiling away inside. But in this particular bland office building facing the water in Marina del Rey, Neda Jahanshad and her colleagues are doing work that is anything but mundane. They're trying to gain a deeper understanding of the human brain, mapping it and uncovering aspects of it that no one has ever understood.
Jahanshad is part of a team of USC scientists that is responsible for the ENIGMA project (ENIGMA stands for Enhancing Neuro Imaging Genetics through Meta Analysis), a worldwide network of neuroscientists sharing findings in the hopes that the pooled information will crack the brain's genetic code.
Jahanshad has a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering and at 30 years old is awfully modest about her achievements. Raised just outside of D.C. in Potomac, Maryland, she downplays her academic successes. “I never wanted to stay in school,” she says. “But when I realized I needed to stop messing around and do something with my life, I went with this because I was always better at math and science.” After undergrad at Johns Hopkins, she applied to the Ph.D. program at UCLA and, after five years there, earned her doctorate at age 26.
Now, along with her colleagues, Jahanshad is working on building computer models that will process the data of thousands of MRIs from their research partners around the world. The hope is that with greater and broader volume, they'll be able to establish a baseline of what a normal brain looks like, as well as discern patterns common to different neurological disorders.
“Historically, people have not had MRIs unless something went wrong,” Jahanshad says. MRIs are used mainly to look for lesions or tumors. It's hard to determine what's normal when people were only being scanned for problems. Many neurological disorders likely are marked by tiny changes in the brain; with no road map for normalcy, it has been difficult to detect those smaller changes, let alone create drugs or other therapies to treat them. ENIGMA hopes to change that, to gather enough data to detect how a brain changes through different diseases, different stages of life and different treatments.
The scope of what ENIGMA is trying to achieve cannot be overstated. The team hopes to unlock the mysteries of how and why people develop depression, Alzheimer's or autism, as well as how the brain changes with conditions such as PTSD, or treatment such as chemotherapy.
“A huge percentage of the world has some kind of neurological disorder,” Jahanshad says. “And, in terms of the brain, there's no way to tell what's going wrong. If we knew what those things were, we might find a way to effective interventions.” And the possibilities for treatments would expand exponentially.