Carinna Torgerson, a Laboratory of Neuro Imaging programmer analyst, can take data from a brain and translate it into dense areas of nerve fibers assigned a psychedelic array of colors to distinguish pathway directions.
Torgerson, 23, holds up an image of nerve fibers she made for the cover of a published scientific article she wrote on a type of bipolar disorder.
The nerve fibers don’t resemble the average person’s concept of what a brain looks like — bubbly and chewing-gum pink.
With the aid of special imaging, the nerve fiber pathways responsible for sending signals in the brain’s white matter — imperceptible to the naked eye — become visible thin lines flowing in different directions around the brain like hair waving in water.
“See these lines here,” Torgerson said, tracing strands of nerve fibers on one image. “This is Diffusion Tensor Imaging. It’s cool because this is the stuff you can’t really even see with a microscope. The only way we can see this is through using the Diffusion Tensor Imaging, which sends magnetic impulses. It hits droplets of water in your brain and it basically tries to realign them and figure out which direction the water can flow.”
White matter contains nerve fibers responsible for transmitting nerve signals throughout the brain. By capturing the pathways of the water molecules, their direction can be determined and pictured front to back, top to bottom or side to side.
“There are two areas [of the brain] you can study — the pink cortical areas and that’s where all the functions take place, but then what my boss and I study is the connections in between, and that’s what makes the networks,” Torgerson said.
Home for the holidays with her family in Bigfork, Torgerson talked about the different scientific articles she has co-authored regarding nerve fibers, connectivity and her ultimate career goal to become a neurosurgeon.
Torgerson, a Flathead High School graduate who was an International Baccalaureate student there, graduated in May from Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles with a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology. She completed a pre-medical program and is waiting to hear back on medical school applications.
To get a job at the Laboratory of Neuro Imaging at UCLA took persistence. She sent more than 30 personalized emails to researchers working there.
“It was a fair amount of work,” Torgerson said. “Only one responded to me, but he gave me a job.”
She is quite busy at the UCLA laboratory analyzing data and being a contributing author on several published scientific articles.
Recently, some of the images and diagrams she helped create with her boss, neuroscientist John Van Horn, appeared in a special issue of Discover Magazine. As a program analyst, Torgerson’s work involves interpreting data sent to her by scientists.
The Discover article was based on a scientific article, “Mapping Connectivity Damage in the Case of Phineas Gage,” originally published in the peer-reviewed journal PLOS ONE. Torgerson was one of four co-authors of the article.
Railroad construction worker Phineas Gage’s famous traumatic brain injury occurred in 1848. An iron tamping rod he was using to pack blasting powder into the ground accidentally ignited, propelling the rod through his cheek and out the top of his skull.
The images and diagrams show — for the first time — the extent of white matter damage in Gage’s brain illustrated by a torrent of rainbow-colored nerve fibers destroyed around the iron rod.
Included in the article are circular diagrams to show how Gage’s brain connectivity was affected. One diagram charts cortical anatomy and brain connectivity using data from 110 right-handed men ages 25 to 36, similar to Gage. Another shows how the injuries affect connectivity.
Inside the circular diagrams, lines form a starburst shape — as if drawn using a Spirograph — to show the array of connections in the brain. Torgerson framed a poster of one of the diagrams initially used in a conference presentation.
“This is sort of what our research group is known for— mapping the brain in one graphic,” Torgerson said.
Torgerson’s name has appeared in print five times, not including her images in neuroimaging calendars. Torgerson was the primary author for a scientific article in the peer-reviewed journal Brain Imaging and Behavior. She researched characteristics of a certain type of bipolar disorder compared to control subjects.
“There were some differences in the organization of the brain,” Torgerson said.
Right now, she is into researching relatively obscure parts of the brain. She is two months into research work for writing an article on the claustrum.
“Basically what people have said [about the claustrum] is everything feeds into it and it feeds out to everything, so basically it just integrates all your senses,” Torgerson said.
But she isn’t convinced by that theory:
“We’re trying to be more specific. It can’t just reach everything and it can’t just be the magic part of the brain where everything comes together. We’re trying to be more realistic.”
After publishing that article she plans to research another little-known part of the brain — the zona incerta.
“There’s something new being discovered about it [the brain] every day,” Torgerson said.
Reporter Hilary Matheson may be reached at 758-4431 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.