The cerebellum, or our little brain, is primarily responsible for our motor skills. Moreover, structure is important for behavior and cognition. The cerebellum is the part of your brain located at the back of your head, above and behind where the spinal cord connects to the brain itself. Although this part is only 10 percent of the size of our brain, the cerebellum contains more brain cells than the rest of our brain and is therefore an important area that we want to map out properly.
The cerebellum in humans is highly folded compared to other mammals. This makes it difficult to fully visualize the structure and thus study, due to the intense layers. To really shoot it right, you need high-resolution photography. With current imaging techniques, only a small part of the cerebellar anatomy can be visualized, with the remaining details ignored. Therefore, the ingenious structure remains largely undiscovered. So far.
Researchers at the Spinoza Center have developed a method for examining the cerebellum using a powerful 7-Tesla MRI scanner. By correcting for movements as people breathe, for example, the team succeeded in achieving an accuracy of 1/5th of a millimeter. In addition, researchers can use this data to digitally reconstruct and amplify the cerebellum, making patterns and layers clearly visible. The cerebellum can also be viewed “live” while performing various tasks.
Researcher Nikos Priovolos: ‘We can do this precisely because we have very high field magnets (which are expensive and difficult to build) and also correct for motion because people tend to move during scans. We can now look at the cognitive role of the cerebellum and the clinical aspects related to the cerebellum. We hope that with this technique we will be able to dig deeper into neurodegenerative disorders. This is the first time we can directly view the human cerebellum in this much detail.
In multiple sclerosis (MS) the cerebellum plays an important role. MS patients have motor lesions, which means they have damage to the neurons involved in movement. We already know from ex vivo studies, and out-of-body experiments, that degeneration of these cells occurs in MS. We’re now examining patients with multiple sclerosis and hopefully looking at other clinical groups as well. Based on previous findings that we know about MS specifically, we can benefit from high-resolution imaging in the cerebellum. We don’t know what the exact effect will be in the long term. We hope it will have some predictive value for these patients.