Gaming in an MRI Machine?! Toyota's Surprise Findings


Part of a series featuring Toyota's research in non-automotive fields, this article showcases research into brain activity using MRI... wherever that leads.

Lying on his back, a man is engrossed in a game as he is pulled into the tunnel of an MRI machine.

These machines are elaborate instruments capable of examining cross-sections of the body to check for disease. Heading into a scan with a controller in hand may hint at a gaming obsession, yet this is anything but child’s play. It is all part of Toyota’s groundbreaking research.

The invisible inner brain laid bare

Having people play games with a steering wheel-style controller inside an MRI machine is actually part of research that aims to determine which parts of the brain, including the spinal cord, are activated by moving the arm muscles.

Recent advances in MRI technology have astonishingly made it possible to clearly identify neural connections at the level of nerve fibers. The image above shows the result when cranial nerves are captured in detail using a technique called Diffusion Tensor Imaging (DTI).

Furthermore, the researchers have found that the brain behaves differently during unconscious and voluntary hand movements.

Cross-sectional images of the left and right motor areas, with active parts of the brain visible.

According to the research team at the RIKEN CBS-TOYOTA Collaboration Center (BTCC), until the last 20 to 30 years, measuring brain temperature meant sticking a probe directly into the tissue.

In recent years, this crude approach has been replaced by MRI, as increased sensitivity enables cross-sectional images to map temperature changes in the brain.

Just as physical exercise warms up the body, the brain’s temperature rises after a hard day of using your head at work. That comic strip staple of steam coming out of a character’s head is not far off the mark.

The Brain is not alone in controlling the body

The researchers also shared a startling hypothesis.

Shintaro Yoshizawa, Ph.D., Project Manager, R-Frontier Division

For example, when a stroke damages the right side of the brain, most often the left side of the body is paralyzed. And yet, rehabilitation can sometimes restore movement. That mechanism remains unexplained.

In our joint research with Dr. Shingo Shimoda (RIKEN), we are exploring the hypothesis that even if the brain is damaged, the central nerves connected to the brain in the form of the spinal cord reroute the circuit.

Their astonishing theory is that not only the brain, but the spinal cord may also possess mechanisms that aid memory and function.

Dr. Yoshizawa

Our research has shown that the brain does not appear to control everything. We believe the spinal cord also has localized control over the body. This means that even if the brain is damaged, the body may still have movement if the spinal cord is intact.

The orange areas show the difference in activity between the cerebrum and the spinal tract, evidence that both are in use during motion. (Left: side view of the spinal cord at the neck, right: frontal view)

Unraveling this mechanism would be a rather revolutionary discovery. The team continues to push into unknown territory.

But why is Toyota conducting brain research? The next page delves into the untapped potential of AI.