Denis Le Bihan: 'Water, the molecule of the mind?'

Dr. Denis Le Bihan, the pioneer of a revolutionary MRI technique, received the 34th Holst Memorial Lecture Award yesterday in the TU/e Auditorium. The erudite Frenchman also gave the Holst Lecture, in which he took the audience on a high-speed journey from Einstein to the role of water in the brain.

Dr. Le Bihan (53) was visibly moved on receiving the award, which was presented by dr. Henk van Houten, CEO of Philips Research, before an audience of several hundred. The Holst Memorial Lecture and the corresponding prize are the results of a partnership between Philips Research and TU/e. The award has been presented each year since 1977 to an eminent scientist, who gives the lecture to an audience of university staff, industry representatives and students.

MobilityLe Bihan has made his mark with the development and refinement of ‘diffusion MRI’ and ‘functional MRI’ – new approaches to detailed imaging of patients’ brains. The technique is based on measuring the molecular movement of water in biological tissue. It measures the mobility of water molecules, which for example is found to differ in healthy brain tissue and cancerous tumors. This difference can then be used to identify and locate tumors. Le Bihan didn’t forget to refer to the founders of knowledge about diffusion: Einstein, who published on the subject in 1905, and Robert Browne, who discovered ‘Brownian motion’ in 1827. Headlamps in a misty cityThe Frenchman described his technique as follows: “We don’t just look at the brain with this technique. You can compare it to making a street map of a misty city while you’re hovering above it. All you can see are the tracks made by the headlamps of the cars. And you can then use them to derive the street map.”

Cerebral infarctionThe brain images produced by the new technique are fascinating, but what you can do with them is even more important. For example Le Bihan showed that when a cerebra infarction is threatened it’s already possible to see how big the affected area will be. The brain consists of 80% water, and according to Le Bihan there are increasingly strong indications that the water is not only a carrier but also plays an active role in the functioning of the brain. He admits it’s a provocative idea, but water could just turn out to be “the molecule of the mind”, he concluded.