27 March 2023

The brain is still a mystery to us

Aamir Malik creates algorithms that help our brain process | Autor: Jan Prokopius

Can brain scans tell us if a person will develop depression or have a stroke? And can we diagnose ourselves at home on the couch using a cell phone? Aamir Malik has been asking these and other questions for many years, who gradually made his way from Pakistan to the Brno University of Technology. At the Faculty of Information Technology, he creates algorithms that help process images of our most important organ, which scientists do not yet fully understand.

"We have the structure of the brain relatively well mapped out, because centuries ago people were fascinated by the brain and studied it. They simply opened the skull of the dead, examined the brain and guessed what each part was for," Aamir Malik says with a short excursion into the history of the scientific field to which he dedicated his life. But he does not focus on the visible folds of the cerebral cortex, he studies how the brain transmits signals and communicates across its centres. It obtains data, for example, from magnetic resonance imaging and further processes it.

What can he find in them? "I'm looking for various abnormalities, signs that a person may develop, for example, an anxiety disorder or depression," the researcher enumerates. Depression is not just a state of mind on Monday morning when we don't want to go to work. It is a disease that the algorithm could detect in time. "Doctors ask patients how they feel, what they eat, how their mood changes? But that is very subjective and it depends a lot on the doctor's experience and the patient's ability to talk about his condition."

From Pakistan to Brno through Australia

Aamir Malik became interested in biomedical engineering and imaging methods in medicine after he went to South Korea at the Gwangju Institute of Science and Technology after studying in his native Islamabad. From there, his journey led to Malaysia, where he first worked in an imaging laboratory, then he was involved in its transformation into a research centre, and a few years later he became its director and led 130 researchers. Then he headed to Australia, among other places.

"I was looking for another opportunity and found an invitation from BUT. They wanted someone who would bring something new to the faculty, so I applied," Malik recalls. Faculty representatives asked him to come and give a lecture in Brno. But it was July 2020 and Australia had strict travel restrictions due to covid. In the end, everything took place online, BUT showed interest, and in October 2021 a Pakistani scientist arrived in Brno.

Medication for depression, trial number three

In his research, he compares brain images of healthy patients and those diagnosed with, for example, depression. He is creating an algorithm that would do this work for him and would draw attention to the disease even in the initial stages. In addition to the expensive magnetic resonance imaging, the programme could be based, for example, on the results of an electroencephalograph examination, which is also performed by a general practitioner in the doctor's office.

Autor: Jan Prokopius
The next step would be to compare images in patients with depression, who undergo the treatment: “If the doctor diagnoses you with depression, what does he do next? He will prescribe you some of the antidepressants. He will tell you to take them for maybe four or six weeks and then come in for a check-up.” If the symptoms disappear or improve, the choice of medication was correct. If not, the doctor prescribes another kind and everything starts again. "By comparing brain images, we can say with some probability whether a particular type of antidepressant will work for a given person. We want to limit this 'try and see' approach and introduce more measurable indicators into the problem," Aamir Malik hopes.

According to the researcher from FIT BUT, the possibilities of use are almost unlimited. It is dedicated to researching dementia, but also early detection of stroke. It is said that it often happens that when a person suffers a stroke, they monitor him in the hospital, send him home, and maybe the next day another one appears, which can be fatal. Modern technologies could predict whether a given patient is at risk of such a scenario.

Nobody goes to the doctor with stress

A reasonable lifestyle, a balanced diet, relaxation, adequate exercise - all this should be part of the equation, which also includes work, family and, behind the equation, a healthy person. However, this is often not the case, and stress creeps into our lives, sometimes it even takes over completely. But who among us takes stress as life-threatening?

At the same time, stress should not be underestimated, points out Aamir Malik: "It can lead to the development of depression, anxiety, but also to cardiovascular problems." But how can you tell when stress is too much? Self-diagnosis, i.e. examination at home by the user himself, could help with this. Is it a utopia? Already today, people monitor their heart rate on their watches, and during covid almost everyone had a blood oxygen meter at home that was worn on their finger.

According to Malik, a mobile phone would be enough to start with. “They will take photos of the face, record audio and record handwriting. We can read a wide range of emotions from the face, as well as from the voice and writing, for example, we can detect pressure and tension, and all of this gives us a picture of whether a person is under stress." If the application detected severe stress, it would of course recommend a visit to the doctor. In a roundabout way, the researcher from Pakistan returns from stress back to his beginnings at BUT, but in reality we will not deviate too much from the topic. "When I came to Brno, I was really surprised how hard-working the students in the Czech Republic are. They study late into the night, you really don't see that much in Southern Europe, and I have a comparison. I also meet colleagues at the faculty who sit here on Saturdays and some on Sundays. I think a little bit of that southern or Australian attitude wouldn't hurt anyone," he concludes with a smile.


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