Professor David Kennedy is a Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Massachusetts. He was a key contributor to the development of functional MRI and diffusion MRI, working in MGH during the late 80s and 90s. His current work reflects his interests in Neuroinformatics and data sharing - indeed he is a founding editor of the journal Neuroinformatics. We found out about his experiences with OHBM, and some of the deep and lasting friendships he made along the way.
How did you become interested in neuroimaging?
David Kennedy (DK): I was an undergraduate physics major at the University of Rochester back in the early 80s. I was doing some summer work and I ended up in the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, chasing neutrinos. I noticed that at the site of Fermilab there was a proton therapy beam cancer centre, where they were using proton beams to work on interventions for cancer – I thought that was a cool application of physics. The imaging work on areas like cancer seemed to me to have more immediate impact than studying the oscillating neutrino to point out whether the universe was open or closed (which is still important, but over a longer timescale). I applied to be part of their fellowship programme and was not accepted. That made me start to look around for other jobs in subsequent years in the radiology department at the University of Rochester. In my junior year I hooked up with Donald Plewes, a radiologist and radiology researcher working on inventing better chest X-rays. That was a fun engineering thing. He was the one back in 1982 or so who said [to me] the words ‘MRI’ or nuclear magnetic resonance imaging as it was then called. He thought it was the up and coming thing.
So I graduated and looked for a graduate-program that included MRI - and there were four in the country that included MRI as part of their program. This was before biomedical engineering programs and so it was applied physics in an area that included MRI. I was fortunate enough to end up in MIT and MGH working with Bruce Rosen and he got me into neuroimaging. It was the heyday of MRI and just getting into human clinical areas and so everything was possible – you turned a knob, found a new thing. It was just a great time and a great place to be studying neuroimaging. It captured me and my interests. A neurology focus then came along, and I was able to bridge between the engineering, the physics of neuroimaging and the application in neurological conditions.
What do you see happening with neuroimaging in the US?
DK: The area I work in most is child psychiatry applications of neuroimaging. In psychiatry overall there’s a bit of a lag in terms of coming up with things that are making an impact on the lives of people with mental health problems. Tom Insel, the past head of the NIMH, has lamented that today a child who walks into their child psychiatrist with autism or an adult with schizophrenia will have pretty similar outcomes: interventions that they did 30 years ago. After a lot of imaging research, a lot of genetic research, there’s still not a huge change and that’s given us a focus. How can we use these amazing technologies to make more of an impact? That’s the real challenge.
What we’re doing is seeing if we can use neuroimaging to help clinically. This is either through early diagnosis, better prognosis, or better monitoring of therapies in order to improve outcomes.
What contributions are you most proud of in your career?
DK: I really enjoyed being in the MGH environment in the heyday, in the 80s and 90s. While people will debate who discovered what and when, certainly the MGH was near the inventions of fMRI, the dynamic susceptibility contrast imaging of Jack Belliveau. Then, along came the endogenous contrast techniques. It was just a great pleasure to be working near those folks in those areas.
Then to be near Van Wedeen and the folks working on early diffusion analysis, working on anatomical connections - to be able to put an anatomical framework on the cool things that the physicists were discovering. So to be near the invention of fMRI and diffusion and to add support and implementation of those techniques was really exciting.
In more modern days we’re working on big data and improving data sharing. A lot of our work is on informatics – but the things we need now require much more data than any one lab can provide. I’m very proud of the data-sharing work that we do and thinking of ways to get at bigger data problems.
You played a part in the creation of OHBM – what was that like?
DK: To be honest, I was often an assistant to Jack Belliveau. Jack was a remarkable visionary back then and I worked very closely with him. He was always aware of what was going on – meeting Bernard Mazoyer, meeting Peter Fox, meeting everyone who was doing exciting things. He was driven by a vision to really record consciousness. He was aware that MRI, MEG, EEG, all these technologies were critical to that. He would work with anyone to really push forward the science.
In the early meetings Jack really insisted that we hold the second annual meeting in Boston and that it not just be an annual meeting, but a society. In following and supporting Jack’s vision, Bruce Rosen and I were able to begin a framework that supported the meeting in Boston in 1996. This was put forward and later adopted by the community; it was a great opportunity to set everything in motion in the hope that it would propel the field. We had to overcome some of the old school people at the time, who were embedded in cerebral blood flow – we still had to convince them that this MRI thing was real. Eventually, we were able to convince the PET people and tracer people that this was a real thing, and that really propelled things forward.
What have you found the most rewarding about your involvement with OHBM over the years?
DK: Its breadth of people who are interested in so many topics. Yes, it started out as brain mapping, and had an MRI-centric focus but from the beginning there was always MEG, EEG and PET and a very broad set of observations. It was always very international and frankly a young group, which kept it dynamic. It was great to have such a diverse group of people together.
Which memories from OHBM stand out?
DK: Playing Frisbee at 3am in the lobby of a hotel in Copenhagen. Also, the 1996 town hall meeting was really a remarkable event – you may have heard about Alan Evans standing up, wearing a helmet. I ended up with that helmet. At the 20th meeting, I had the honour of handing it back to Alan. Incidentally, my wife wasn’t very pleased at us having the helmet, so I was very pleased to be able to return it [laughs].
What changes have you seen in OHBM over the years?
DK: I work a lot with the Open Science Special Interest Group(OpenSci SIG) – that’s really exciting as it is where a lot of young and interesting investigators are. It’s an area where a lot of the physics is being worked out. There’s a lot of software being created that helps with data sharing and processing. The youth and the vibrancy of the open science area is really encouraging. That, I think, is a great opportunity to develop more techniques. The OpenSci SIG captures the energy and skills that today’s young scientists and programmers have.
What’s the future of neuroimaging?
DK: I’m really motivated by some of the things that Randy Buckner has been talking about recently. He’s been trying to get to personalised observations and meaningful observations. The time for looking at disease vs not disease may be passing. Now we really want to understand within a disease why the good days and bad days, high anxiety moments and low anxiety moments – what are the neural signals of that on fMRI, EEG, MEG and so on. Can we really get those dynamic signatures? Those are going to be much more relevant and will allow us to intervene with therapies and medical interventions. We will move towards a point where we can personalise and temporalise in a way that’s meaningful.
David, many thanks!