The Underpinnings of Neuroscience

Exploring brain imaging with Dr. Sylvain Baillet


In college, I was a volunteer for Brain Awareness Montréal, a non-profit that advocates for neuroscience education amongst students and youths. During my time, I had the immense privilege of meeting and working with some of the finest neuroscientists, neurosurgeons, nurses, and staff in the Montréal neuroscience community, including Dr. Sylvain Baillet. Dr. Baillet who was one of my professors at McGill, and the inaugural Director of the magnetoencephalography (MEG) imaging core of the Neuro.

I dug up the piece I wrote about him from the recesses of my harddrive while reviewing some old neuroscience course notes over the weekend. Tip to soon-to-be graduates: As much as you’re tempted to (“In what situation will I ever have to know the memory systems and their anatomical loci?..”) never throw out your course notes.

Here is junior-year-of-college Betty writing about one of her role models.


At the Montreal Neurological Institute – Canada’s first and only integrated neurological institute and hospital – patients, administrators, doctors, and researchers, are all working together with the common goal to understand, and treat neurological diseases and the mechanisms of brain function. The recent construction of the MNI’s North Wing Pavilion is a reflection of the enduring growth of neuroscience research in Montreal. And at the heart of this expansion is the MNI’s McConnell Brain Imaging Centre (BIC). Over the last 30 years, the BIC has been the host of cutting-edge brain imaging facilities and world-renowned scientists, as well as a proud sponsor of Brain Awareness Week. One of these scientists is Dr. Sylvain Baillet, the Director of Magnetoencephalography Research at the MNI and Interim Director of the BIC since August 2013.

Dr. Baillet hails from France where he studied at the University of Paris and The École Normale Supérieure in applied physics. He was first introduced to the multidisciplinary approach of neuroscience when selecting his Masters degree topic. “I was browsing at the library looking for good material to read when I picked up David Marr’s book on computational vision and with my background as a physicist, I could understand where he was coming from… Along with understanding the biological aspect which I wasn’t as familiar with, I became quite fascinated with the topic”, said Dr. Baillet. “I was looking for something different at the time and in the late 1990s, there was a big boom on brain imaging methods and there was a lot of excitement about developing new ways to look at the human brain in action.”

During the completion of his PhD program, Dr. Baillet became involved in a new imaging technique at the time known as magnetoencephalography or MEG. This technique captures the global brain dynamics by the millisecond to derive how activities unfold in time over different brain regions. Following his post-doctorate fellowship at the University of Southern California, he obtained a position in 2010 as a principal investigator at the Centre de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), a national research institute in France. Afterwards, Dr. Baillet moved to the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee in 2008 where he translated his research expertise into the development of a clinical program for brain imaging. And when the MNI called him with the opportunity to start their heavily research-oriented MEG program in 2011, Dr. Baillet agreed. “I thought I would come back stronger to academic research after having learned a lot from the everyday reality of clinical radiology. My intention was to continue to do what I love the most which is to develop new ideas and programs and train students and fellows,” said Dr. Baillet on his decision to move to Montreal.

Today, at the MNI, Dr. Baillet is the head of a group of researchers and students as well as the interim Director responsible for brain imaging operations serving over 100 principal investigators in Montreal. His own research focuses on understanding and developing models of possible mechanisms for how brain regions communicate together. Additionally, Dr. Baillet is interested in developing real time brain imaging techniques for measuring activity in specific brain regions of the patients and to provide neurofeedback. This opens interesting applications of brain imaging techniques as not only a diagnostic tool but also for therapy as an instrument for patients to work on their brain health. Currently, Dr. Baillet is working with Dr. Isabelle Peretz, an investigator at the University of Montreal, on improving brain connectivity through this feedback procedure in amusia patients. In the longer term, their research has the potential to be an alternative therapeutic treatment for patients with epilepsy, depression, and other neurological conditions.

Neuroscience has become one of the most exciting multidisciplinary and fastest growing research fields. With the advancements in computational neuroscience and medical physics and engineering, neuroscientists are better equipped than ever with the knowledge and tools to study the nervous system fully. The fast-evolving technology in brain imaging has helped propagate basic and clinical neuroscience discoveries in the past and will continue to do so in the future. For Dr. Baillet, the next big challenge in brain imaging is to integrate together the multiple dimensions of neuroimaging data that are captured by today’s state-of-the art imaging modalities. He stated:

Sometimes, the most pertinent questions can be asked when you pool large amounts of data together. We must make sense of the complexity and wealth of information that are being accumulated in our research centres. Not only brain imaging per se but when you pool it together with genetics and other metrics of behaviour or biological measurements – with the development of large-scale informatics – you can start exploring these large data sets and start isolating features. A project of this scope is currently being developed specifically by Prof. Alan C. Evans at the BIC. I think the bottom line is interdisciplinarity. Neuroscience is a beautiful example of the convergence of many different types of expertise and data. It is considered to be the next frontier of understanding the mechanisms enabling emergence from complex systems like the human brain.

As for current students who are considering a future career in neuroscience, Dr. Baillet encourages them to get involved in hands-on research early on to help them decide if the career path is right for them. Undergraduates can seek volunteer opportunities in research laboratories before pursuing graduate school research. “We all have the perception when listening to a professor giving a seminar that things are linear and the process to find results seems straight forward,” explained Dr. Baillet. “But in reality, it is complicated, difficult, and takes perseverance to drive through the many obstacles of developing your own ideas and own research. Take advantage of your spare time to explore since neuroscience is a very broad field – which is what makes it so great.”

To learn more about Dr. Baillet’s research at the Montreal Neurological Institute, visit the McConnell Brain Imaging Centre’s website.