School of Medicine

Mysteries explored: Pioneering neurologist Marcus Raichle, MD, opened up the human brain to scientific investigation

Neurologist Marcus Raichle, MD, and other members of a British scientific expedition ascend the Karakoram Mountains in 1987. (Photo: courtesy of Marcus Raichle)

From the WashU School of Medicine’s Outlook Magazine

In a 1987 expedition, neurologist Marcus Raichle, MD, climbed 18,000 feet above sea level, scaling the icy Karakoram Mountains of Pakistan. There, amidst heavy snow and high winds, Raichle and 18 researchers injected themselves with radioactive xenon.

A crude scanner measured the gas as it diffused through their bodies, accurately recording blood flow in the mountaineers’ brains. Their objective was to better understand acute mountain sickness, a syndrome affecting climbers that causes headaches, vomiting, cerebral and pulmonary edema and, occasionally, death.

The British expeditionists’ earlier treks already had linked the syndrome to the brain’s uptake of oxygen. On this journey, they invited Raichle, an experienced mountaineer and physician highly regarded for his expertise in mapping brain blood flow.

Thirty years later, Raichle is still unraveling clues to the brain by studying its blood flow and oxygen use. This blood flow — laden with oxygen and nutrients — fuels the brain, with the busiest areas burning through fuel the fastest.

Raichle, now 81, the Edith L. Wolff Distinguished Professor of medicine and a professor of radiology, neurology, neurobiology and biomedical engineering, is a central figure in the history and science of brain imaging. He is noted for developing positron emission tomography (PET) techniques, explaining principles underlying functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and capturing some of the first snapshots of the brain at work.

He tells a thrilling tale of scientific mysteries and their startling solutions, which have transformed how we understand ourselves.

  Read more at Outlook.