Peter Fox is a Professor of Neurology and has been a director of the Research Imaging Institute at the University of Texas Health Science Centre, San Antonio since 1991. He’s a co-founder of the journal Human Brain Mapping (with Jack Lancaster), a founding member of the International Consortium for Brain Mapping and has consistently been listed as one of the top 100 most cited neuroscientists since 2004.
Peter Fox has played an integral role in the founding and development of OHBM, serving as Chair in 2004-05. We found out about his major academic achievements and experiences with OHBM.
About that time, articles started appearing in journals and being covered in Scientific American about what the Danes were doing with single photon studies. They started off with language studies, identifying that during language listening, there was a lot going on in the frontal lobes, and that the right hemisphere was involved, two points that nobody had anticipated. At that point, I knew that I wanted to study people, and I figured the only real way to do that was to go to medical school and to become a clinical neuroscientist. Then I could do this kind of work.
What do you see happening with neuroimaging in the US these days?
PF: In the area that I'm most involved in, and the sort of grants that I review, what I'm seeing as a strong trend, pushed both by the investigators and by the funding agencies, is using neuroimaging as a demonstration of the neurobiology of treatments. And the expectation is that if you're going to test a new treatment, if you're going to do a clinical trial in a neurological disorder or psychiatric disorder, you won't be funded unless you can establish the neurobiological mechanism. Imaging is the way to do that. So it's moved from being really basic science to clinical neuroscience, and the interface between the treatments and theory. I think that's a really powerful and appropriate role, and a way of moving neuroimaging into demonstrably helping humankind at large. So I think that's a very important and powerful direction that the field is going in.
What research or other contributions are you most proud of in your career?
PF: Two areas that I was very pleased to have been involved in were both at about the same time. One is doing the original studies demonstrating that blood flow and metabolism are uncoupled or are engaged in a very complicated relationship. Those observations gave rise pretty much immediately to the development of functional MRI. And in particular, the prediction of the BOLD signal. The people who described it, predicted it, and cited the work that we had just published, said, “If Fox and Raichle are correct then that would predict this, and we should get a signal like this”, and that was correct. Now BOLD fMRI has become the dominant technique for brain mapping. And so the lineage there is really quite clear. And so I'd say that was a lot of fun.
Another area that I've been really pleased with how well early ideas evolved, and were adopted, is introducing standardized coordinates. And so when I started doing mapping studies, right away, I was unsatisfied with the ability to say where we were. And I looked around, and there weren't many examples, but people were mostly naming things by gyri. That, to me, seemed not enough. So I spent time looking for alternatives and came across Talairach's 1967 Atlas and some papers referencing that. So we developed a way of putting the images I was acquiring into Talairach space, and published that method, and encouraged people to adopt it. So ultimately, that has become the standard. And so really, everything is published in standardized coordinates, originally Talairach coordinates, but now the 1988 Talairach and MNI, and there's various versions, but still, they are translatable from one to another. And so the format that we all publish and analyze our data in, I had the opportunity to introduce and so that's real fun, I enjoyed that.
You played a part in the creation of OHBM. What was that like? And how did you imagine OHBM would be like?
PF: When I was just starting out in San Antonio, I'd been working on the brain map database for a few years. We were trying to develop a data sharing mechanism that used standardized coordinates, to give people a way of sharing their data, or at least sharing their results, if not their original data. I received funding for quite a few years to bring people to San Antonio. I focused on bringing people that were having the most influence on methods development. We had two days of methods talks, always in the same organization. There were algorithms for data analysis; Karl Friston always ran that as a half day session. And there was a session on databases that I ran. There was a session on spatial normalization and [Jack] Lancaster ran that, and there was a session on merging different imaging modalities. We did that year after year and after about the third year, this was a meeting of about 200 people. I got grants to bring people and the people that kept coming year after year, said, we should open this up to a bigger community.
I said, that's fine with me. And they said, you do it Peter, but I thought 'No, I like doing meetings this size. I'll do one later, but I don't want to do the first big meeting.’ Bernard Mazoyer and Per Roland said they'd do it, but they wanted guaranteed support because they didn't know how to do it. And so everybody there, [John] Mazziotta and [Karl] Friston and [Richard] Frackowiak and Leslie Ungerleider all said, we'll bring our labs. So with that kind of agreement, Bernard and Per went forward and did it. And then that just kicked it off. And it's rolled since then.
What have you found most rewarding about your involvement with OHBM?
PF: I've been to many different meetings. I think it's a very widely held opinion that the standard of science at OHBM is the best of any meeting that I've ever been to. It's very sophisticated, and has very high expectations. Clinical meetings are not this good by a long shot, they are not. Another thing is the inclusivity of this meeting; it's been that way from the start. We have mathematicians and statisticians and physicists and engineers, psychologists, psychiatrists and neurologists, everybody comes together. That's very unusual. The third thing that I think is really fun about this meeting is the international scope of it. And the gender balance. Many clinical meetings, many clinical studies are not very gender balanced. They're male predominant a lot of them, particularly imaging. So for instance Radiology is 80% males. And at this OHBM meeting in Singapore it’s pretty much 50:50, male to female. That's very unusual. So I think there's a lot of unusual things about this meeting.
What memory stands out when you think about your experiences with OHBM?
PF: I remember being the council chair in Toronto and that was amazing. That was really a lot of fun. And I definitely remember we got sponsored to host a party. Just the council chair hosted a party; that was a spectacular party. So we've been to a lot of really outstanding social events involved with OHBM.
What changes have you seen in OHBM over the years?
PF: I'm as impressed with what doesn't change as what does change. Certainly, the recent changes have been that there's much more social media outreach, and proactive engagement of young people, trying to attract people into this field and making a very complicated field as approachable as it can be. High marks for that - that's really an excellent initiative. And honestly, I think OHBM is doing that better than any other organization that I've been exposed to. It's very proactive, it's very positive.
But, to me, equally impressive, is that the overall concept of the meeting, the organization of the meeting, how the program committee approaches the meeting, just the style of the meeting, was created early. If you went to the first OHBM and you went to the current OHBM you would see strong similarities. The intention of the meeting and what is attempted, what's being done, is giving you the most cutting edge applications, the most cutting edge methods, trying to span cognitive and clinical neuroscience, that was present from day one. And that really creates an outstanding feel, flavor and content for this meeting. And so I'm just as happy with what has persisted as with what has evolved.
So what do you see as the future for neuroimaging?
PF: I mentioned earlier that I think neuroimaging has a huge role in treatment development. I expect that to continue. Another direction that I really think the field will have to push on and be open and kind of aggressive in bringing people in, is pushing down into the basic neurobiological mechanisms underlying the imaging signals that we have. And so collaborating with people working in animal models, and working with techniques that are more invasive than our techniques, such as optical techniques that we need to do. And we need to really encourage scientists working at that level to bring their work to OHBM. So I think those are the directions that are important for us to go.
Professor Fox it's been great. Thank you very much.
PF: Yeah. Thank you.