When AAAS Fellow and neurologist Scott Grafton wanted to set up a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner dedicated solely to research at Dartmouth College everyone said he was crazy. Hospitals and medical schools operate MRI scanners, not psychology departments.
"Everybody told me we needed an army of physicists to run this machine," Grafton said, adding: "It was totally successful from day one."
That was 2000. Now, research-imaging centers exist in universities throughout the U.S. and the world. Grafton helped develop several, including one at University of California, Santa Barbara, where he is a professor of psychological and brain sciences and director of UCSB's Brain Imaging Center.
Grafton is adamant that researchers should have their own MRI scanners so they don't have to compete with clinical radiologists who need the machines to scan patients. "A big part of MRI is having some creative time," he said. "You go in the lab and try things. That's how you discover—try hair-brained ideas."
Grafton has spent his career tinkering with new ways to unpack the brain, something that has always fascinated him.
"It wasn't the psychological properties of the mind," he said. "It was the physical nuts and bolts of how this incredibly complex and fragile and robust system can operate."
This curiosity with how things work stretches back to his childhood as a "take-it-apart" kid who disassembled and rebuilt bikes, cameras and later, cars.
Raised by an engineer and a biologist, Grafton attended University of California, Santa Cruz, where he majored in math and psychobiology. When it was time for his study abroad experience, he picked the National Institute of Health in Washington, D.C.
For months, he lived in a hospital room volunteering to be a guinea pig in researchers' studies. In one, researchers gave him a fever and then measured his temperature every 15 minutes for several hours.
"It made me convinced that human research was the way to go," Grafton said. "You really learn to recognize that these mild to moderate risks are well worth the potential discoveries."
After attending medical school at University of Southern California, he completed residencies in neurology and nuclear medicine. For much of his career, he's been a clinician, researcher and teacher—a schedule that left time for little else besides his family, he said: "To really succeed in science, you have to the willing to be all in."
Early on, Grafton studied how the brain controls movement, and what happens when that breaks down in patients with Parkinson's or Huntington's disease.
"From a clinical perspective that's what patients care about the most," he said. "There is nothing more frustrating than not being able to get up, to walk, to feed yourself, dress yourself.\
With the advent of MRI-based imaging in the 1990s, Grafton was able to look at movement more broadly because it was much safer for patients than nuclear-based imaging systems. He was able to learn more about how the brain controls the speed, direction, and accuracy of movements, and conduct some of the very earliest studies on how people learn skills, like playing a musical instrument.
"We learned that the old textbook model was just wrong," Grafton said. That model of brain structure and function was based on the idea that one area of the brain controlled a movement, like playing a guitar, while a totally different area stores the memory of how to play a C chord. What Grafton and his colleagues found through imaging studies was that the memory is in the same area of the brain that controls the movement: "The areas that do it, remember it," he said.
Grafton continues to challenge popular ways of thinking about the brain. "What drives me crazy is we're lacking in the vocabulary to characterize the brain as a network," he said. "We don't know yet the right way to describe those networks, label those networks, and measure how they interact with each other."
Grafton has aimed to develop ever more advanced ways to use MRI-based tools as brain-imaging technology has evolved.
Currently, he is developing software for MRI machines that creates fine-scale brain wiring maps. These higher-resolution maps could help treat patients who have multiple concussions but who show no signs of brain trauma in regular MRIs. One in 10 of these patients complain of vague symptoms like dizziness, headaches, trouble focusing or making decisions. Doctors have difficulty in treating patients with multiple concussions because they can't judge the severity of the symptoms without a baseline.
He and his colleagues also are working on a tool to monitor and evaluate stress responses. They are interested in understanding why some talented, trained people—such as professional athletes, elite mathematicians or public speakers—fall apart when they have to perform under pressure. His group is exploring how the brain deals with stress "on a moment-to-moment basis. Not over a week, not over an hour, but over 10 seconds."
The fast response is controlled not by hormones, but by the brain and autonomic nervous system, he said, and is largely ignored in the scientific literature.
Even after all these years of research and advancements in brain imaging technology, Grafton expresses wonderment that he's able to go to work everyday and peek inside the brain.
"It's still an amazing thing that you can lay in a scanner, wiggle your thumb and see activity in the motor cortex change 30 percent," he said. "I mean, that's just amazing!"