The lead-up to OHBM2019 in Rome

Quite a nutty week it was in Paris just before OHBM2019. Lots of things to be done – talks, posters to be finished for the Organization for Human Brain Mapping [OHBM] meeting in Rome! Lots of ICMers were working hard prepping for this meeting… including the ICM’s cat. Most mornings over the last week he sat on the edge of the moat [with quite a precipitous drop] or just in the middle of foot traffic on the moat, soliciting pats from everyone…

As part of the work side of this week I took a trip out to Fontainebleau with my colleague, who was a member on a Jury for a PhD thesis defense at an institution called INSEAD. INSEAD brands itself as the ‘Business School of the World’ [see] & it offers graduate education in business & marketing. It is a very international place – faculty & students alike come from all parts of the world. It has campuses in Singapore & Abu Dhabi as well. The name INSEAD is an acronym that stands for Institut Européen d’Administration des Affaires [see]. It was founded in 1957 by one of the first venture capitalists – Georges Doriot. Incredibly, for the first 10 years it had its classes in the Château de Fontainebleau, before moving to its new Fontainebleau campus in 1967! The cool part about INSEAD’s campus is that is it a stone’s throw from the famous Fontainebleau forest. We made sure that we got there earlier so we could take a stroll through some of it. Unusual forest for something that is so far inland – the soil is very sandy…


…seems like you are at the beach. The trees are amazing – lots of huge oaks with twin trunks as well as lots of fir trees. Very pretty.



Apparently there are a lot of deer, as well as wild boars running around in this forest. Thankfully we did not run into the latter. The thing that is the most striking though is the bird life – you hear so many different types of birds. We heard a cuckoo – with its very distinctive call. See if you can hear it in the video below:

It was a real treat to wander around for about an hour or so in the forest. Felt really weird doing that with my laptop slung over my shoulder & wearing a string of pearls. Here is another video showing the beautiful terrain & this time some different bird calls can be heard.

It was nice to come back to Fontainebleau once more – on a previous trip I had visited the chateau. Before we knew it though, it was time to head inside for the PhD thesis defense, which of course went well. After it was done it was time to get on the train back to Paris a colleague from INSEAD gave us a ride to the station in Fontainebleau. We could see a pretty nasty storm coming over as we were driving. Sure enough the heavens opened when we had to get out of the car at the station. Only took ~15 sec to get completely drenched from the hips down – I was valiantly clutching my umbrella in the wind. Actually I was glad to get under cover in the station – am not worried about the deluge as I am about the thunder & lightning. That afternoon’s storm was a doozy. A group of schoolchildren got hit by lightning while they were on a soccer field. Yikes.

As if the week was not busy enough, another thing to do before going to Rome was to check out a specialist cooking store in Paris. Why would I need to do that I hear you cry & also in this particular week? I was looking for some pasta cutters to make tortellini & agnolotti because mine at home have become blunt. So I was looking for some new sharp ones with the idea if I could not get them in Paris [Plan A], I would then look for them in Rome [Plan B]. The store is in the 1st arrondisement & is called MORA [].



So as can be seen in the image above, the place has been around for quite some time! Mission accomplished! I bought my new pasta making tools there. I also got a chain mail glove as I often will bone poultry or rabbit at home. The boning knife is incredibly sharp & I worry that one day that knife might slip & it will be a trip to the emergency room… So no more worrying about that now.

During this week at ICM Stuart Firestein from Columbia University was in Paris  – working with his colleagues at an institute called the CRI or the Center for Research in Interdisciplinarity []. Very interesting initiative – founded by François Taddei & Ariel Lindner in 2005 to create a student/researcher centered open environment, with a goal to promote life-long learning. The building is also very impressive – took a huge renovation & also includes student apartments. The building has a radical design – library & admin are between two other buildings – one of which has labs & the other offices etc. Here are some pics of a renovated Art Deco staircase. Originally the staircase also had a service elevator going down the center, which was taken out. Now a linear light sculpture, spanning many floors, is in the elevator’s place.

The doors of the elevator were salvaged to create this piece of wall art that compliments the surroundings very nicely. What a delightful way to feature something from days gone by…


That night we went out to drinks & dinner – lovely to catch up with Stuart in Paris. We went to a bar where the shot below was taken. We were also accosted by a cat who insisted on sitting on all of our laps. When I told the bar’s owner that he had a really nice cat, he said it belonged to his neighbor & that it would always hang out in the bar soliciting pats from everyone.

We ended up going to a famous brasserie called Les Philosophes in the Marais []. The restaurant has been there since the 1920s & is in the old Jewish neighborhood of Paris. We had a great meal, washed down with a premier bottle of red. I also had the biggest steak tartare I have ever had. Finished every little bit of it…

The next day Stuart visited us at the ICM & checked out CENIR – the neuroimaging center with MRI/MEG/EEG – something I have described in a previous post.

What a busy, but enjoyable, week! This post started & ended with a cat. [Yes, I am missing my creatures.] The next post will come from Italy – after the madness that is OHBM2019 is over…


Is my brain activity the same either side of the Atlantic? Seriously.

These last couple of weeks have been really busy – so much to do before the OHBM meeting in Rome! Trying to finish manuscripts, working on scientific posters with colleagues, as well as preparing a couple of talks for Rome – one for an OHBM Symposium I have co-organized & another for a Symposium at the Sapienza Università di Roma.

The other thing we have been trying to do is to finish up our study of ‘living phantoms’ – my colleague & I have already made recordings of each other’s brain electrical activity and brain blood flow on the other side of the Atlantic, in my lab & in the 3 T MRI-scanner in our Imaging Research Facility at Indiana University [IU]. So now we are doing the same thing on this side of the Atlantic. The image below shows me wearing our 256-sensor cap [to measure electrical brain activity] at IU. The contraption I am sitting in [image below] is a photogrammetry system in my lab – a device that has 11 cameras that capture a picture of my head & where the sensors are located on the head.


This allows a 3D map of the head surface with sensor positions to be made, which can then be subsequently merged with an anatomical MRI scan of my whole head, which ultimately looks something like this [image below], which was taken a few years earlier.


Perhaps you can see that characteristic nose of mine in that hairless & colorless image. If you look carefully you can probably recognize my facial features – if you already know me well. This, of course, is a real ethical issue for subject privacy in labs all over the world. In functional MRI studies it is usual to ‘strip’ away the tissues of the head & face to leave only the brain – which of course is hard to identify. In some of our brain electrical activity [electroencephalography or EEG] studies this is not possible. We need to use the surface of the head/face & also consider how well the different tissues of the head conduct electricity  [i.e. the spontaneous brain activity that our brain emits 24/7] for certain types of very specialized data analyses. [This is not the case in all EEG studies – many studies use only the EEG traces & 3D maps of the head are not needed.]

One can also measure the tiny magnetic fields that the brain emits using a method known as magnetoencephalography [MEG for short]. If one wants to really go over the top, one can do both MEG & EEG at the same time. This is what I did this week in CENIR at the ICM. First, the EEG sensors were put on my head, with extra leads to also measure eye movements & cardiac activity. We also need to make a map of the EEG sensors on my head – but here a slightly different method was used. A radio frequency transmitter at the back of the chair I am sitting on [that you cannot see] puts out a signal whose strength varies as a function of 3D distance from it [a polhemus system] . The experimenter uses a wand-like device [a radio frequency receiver] to touch the central location of each EEG sensor & measure the signal strength [& therefore the sensor’s position on the head]. The ‘Biggles’ googles I am wearing also have this position sensing in them, so that if I move my head even slightly the measurement system will compensate for that…


Once we had the sensors localized in 3D space, off came the goggles & it was time to ‘gel’ ’em up i.e. put in some conductive ‘goop’ to provide a good contact between my scalp & each sensor. This is always the fun part & takes quite a bit of time – the goop is usually cold & the experimenters have exfoliate the scalp as they go – yes indeed, one has a spa treatment for the face & head for this experiment… After a lot of checking that the contact between sensors & scalp is good, it is time to go into the shielded chamber, where the recording will take place. There I am fitted into the MEG helmet – a rigid device with sensors embedded in liquid helium. The thing weighs a lot & sits in a gantry that is adjustable. You have to make sure that your head is on contact with the MEG helmet [completely the opposite of being in an MRI scanner where you cannot touch the headcoil or the bore of the magnet].


Before we started all of this & changed some of my clothing [PJ pants], took off all of my jewelry & watch etc. We had done a quick check to see that I did not have any residual magnetization in my body [this includes clothing such as metal clips on bras etc & also sometimes dental fillings, for example]. If there is something magnetic on the person’s body – such as clothing etc. one would have to change completely into the PJ set that is supplied. Similarly, shoes also come off & little booties are issued. For dental fillings that are a problem the head can be ‘degaussed’ using a wand-like device – makes me think of ‘aura cleansing’ when I see it done. 🙂 This time I did not need to be degaussed even though I was expecting to have to do so because I had an MRI scan at IU as part of this study & made sure that it was done at least 6 weeks before having this MEG study…

The shielded room is a minimalist place to be sure – nice clean white interior with minimal clutter. There is no electrical equipment is inside the room – the idea is to keep all magnetic fields out – including that from our own planet. This is because the magnetic fields we measure from the brain are really tiny & are indeed many, many orders of magnitude smaller than the Earth’s magnetic field… The shielded room is also soundproof, once the door is sealed, so all communication with experimenters occurs via a MEG-compatible intercom system. In the control room, the experimenters can monitor what I am up to in there at all times – cameras monitor me, as well as all the sensors whose activity is displayed on monitors.



We were doing a ‘resting state’ study on me & also my colleague across 2 different continents – so we are being studied on either side of the Atlantic with multiple assessment modalities. We will look to see how we can integrate these datasets & also look for how consistent the profiles of activity are across the two measurements. Our plan is to share the data with colleagues in an open science framework, but we will have to do some gymnastics with data formatting first, so that it is in a new and desirable format [BIDS] that will allow more people to interact with it.


One of the tough things about doing a resting state study is ‘staying on task’ i.e. keeping one’s eyes open & fixating on a cross on the wall of the chamber, but letting one’s mind wander. We are doing 4 x 10 minute recordings of MEG & EEG [we also did that for our EEG only study at IU, & our functional MRI studies on both sides of the Atlantic].

What is more fascinating to me personally is how the flow of thoughts runs during this time – it is interesting to monitor this in oneself. The thing that struck me the most was that I think in a couple of languages [& can force myself to think in a third]. I had not really realized how much I actually switch between them… that was what I learned the most about myself from doing this study. It was also interesting to see what happens when you are in an environment under sensory deprivation. As I noted, the room was white, with a black fixation cross on the wall. What was cool was that during the last 10 minute run [i.e. after I had been trying to stare at that fixation cross for over half an hour] I started to get some interesting visual hallucinations. The seams of the door of the chamber started to become colored – these were vivid neon-like colors. A very cool effect. I was just beginning to explore this further when unfortunately to my great surprise time was up – we were already done…

What other things do I think might be important for studies such as this one? I come back to the title of this post: I was not being facetious when I posed the original question. How does our brain activity vary with geographical location? What about effects from the season of the year? [The light levels outside can be vastly different in addition to temperatures – in Indiana it was winter when we did the study, here in Paris it is late now spring.] What about the cultural milieu one is in? [Fortunately, since I have been over here before, the environment is completely familiar, so at least there is a minimal effect of novelty here, but there may still be a cultural effect.] What differences in activity are there for measurements taking sitting upright versus lying down? What differences in brain activity occur after a 3-4 month period of time has passed? How does one’s emotional state change the data? What about the amount of caffeine consumed? What about one’s habitual diet? Same applies to blood sugar levels at time of measurement etc… What if someone has a cold & a fever versus when they are well? These are all questions that we do not have clear answers yet. Many future studies will have to be performed to get at these. And this is not something we can tackle with our little investigation – we are just trying to get a rough idea of reproducibility across different methods in different labs at this stage & trying to integrate datasets for future work together.

But here is the one question I wonder about the most: how has my brain changed since the time [a year ago] that I was here last? Clearly I am a year older, however, I have also had a very rich cultural experience when I was here last that would have changed me forever also [hopefully for the better]…