Those of you who follow me on Twitter may have noticed that I've been scanning some post mortem brains of Cetacea over the past year or so. That's whales, dolphins and porpoises to you and me. The brains come in all shapes and sizes, from a rather tiny Amazon river dolphin, about the size of a fist, to fin and sei whale brains that are so wide they have to be inserted sideways, hemisphere-first, into the 3 T (human) head coil. The conditions and ages of the brains vary tremendously as well. Some have been fixed in formaldehyde for decades yet yield remarkably decent signal, others have been stored in ethanol and are as hard as rubber with T2 to match. A few months ago we obtained a recently deceased fresh brain of a white-sided dolphin which we were able to scan within about twelve hours of its demise. The image quality was magnificent.
What do we plan to do with all the post mortem data? That is still being formulated. Initial motivation for the project came from some Berkeley anthropologists with an interest in comparative neuroanatomy across higher mammalian species. Coincidentally, Greg Berns' group at Emory has recently produced a nice example of dolphin brain tractography and his recent study is a good example of what might be done in future. There's a commentary on Greg's study here, and an example image from his paper below. We are now determining how we might combine resources, share data and all that good stuff. More on what will be available to whom and when as we progress.
|From: Berns et al.|
In any case, after I posted the white-sided dolphin MRI to Twitter someone asked, likely facetiously (I suppose that should be flippantly), whether functional MRI was next. FMRI of dolphins was the subject of an April Fool's Day joke a few years ago, and it does seem far-fetched at first blush. So, too, does studying trained dogs with fMRI, but Greg Berns' team is already doing that. Since thought experiments are cheap I figured I'd write a blog post to consider what might be feasible today if one were sufficiently motivated (read sufficiently well funded) to want to do fMRI of cetaceans. If nothing else we might learn something as we're forced to consider the manifold factors.