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Cover Story
From the Magazine | Cover

Getting Inside Your Head

As "neuro" goes mainstream, Big Business hopes to decode the brain's secrets
By TERRY MCCARTHY/LOS ANGELES

Posted Sunday, Oct. 16, 2005
Marketers already seem to know a lot about how we think, but what if they could actually watch our brains work as they test their products? A recent experiment by Read Montague, a neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine, may be laying the groundwork for just that. In an experiment last year, he scanned volunteers' brains as they drank samples of Coke and Pepsi. When the colas were not identified, the tasters showed no particular preference for either. But when they were shown the iconic red-and-white label, they expressed a huge preference for Coke, irrespective of which cola they were actually sampling. Coke's logo, the scans showed, lit up areas in the brain associated with pleasure expectation in a way that Pepsi's did not. Montague's conclusion: Coke's more pervasive brand marketing affected volunteers' preferences in ways they didn't realize--even if they were normally Pepsi drinkers.

Get ready for an Era of the Brain. New scanning techniques are making it easier to determine how our minds work and creating hopes in the corporate world that companies can make new connections with customers--and duplicate the Coke effect. The breakthrough behind all that is the development of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), the latest in neuroimaging technology, which displays not only the structure of the brain but also how it actually functions, by measuring its blood flow. In the scans, specific areas of the brain light up as various mental processes occur. Although the technology is still in its infancy, the potential for looking inside the mind is already attracting researchers from other disciplines. Hybrid fields like neuroethics and neuroeconomics are emerging so rapidly that neuro may well become investors' next hot prefix. (So long, nano?)

What's creating the most excitement is a project called the International Consortium for Brain Mapping, a 12-year collaborative effort to create an atlas of the human brain, based on scans of 7,000 brains from three continents. Coordinated by John Mazziotta, who runs the Ahmanson-Lovelace Brain Mapping Center at UCLA, the brain atlas is due to be released online next year. Data are being stored and analyzed on a supercomputer at UCLA with 1 petabyte of capacity--equivalent to a book with 250 billion pages. "They are laying the groundwork for all other brain studies to come," says Allan Jones, of the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle.

The immediate benefit would be at the clinical level. The atlas would give researchers and physicians around the world access to virtual maps of how the brain functions, to compare with data they obtain from scans of their subjects or patients. By the end of next year, they should be able to project local scans free of charge into the online atlas via a computer technique called "warping." That will immediately show if some part of the brain appears to be working abnormally, compared with norms established by the scans of the 7,000 "healthy" brains. "We can do very tight matches. For example, you could look for all left-handed Chinese women in their 20s with two years of college and make a match," says Mazziotta. The atlas' scanning techniques could also be used to speed drug trials, since researchers could compare images of the brain before, during and after the administration of a new medication--and then compare those images with brains in the atlas.

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From the Oct. 24, 2005 issue of TIME magazine
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Table of Contents
Oct. 24, 2005
  • What's Next
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