The BOLD effect—tracking neuronal activity through blood flow—was first demonstrated in small animals in 1990 by one of Robert Shulman’s former Bell Labs postdocs, Seiji Ogawa, Ph.D. Then, Ogawa and another former Shulman postdoc, Kamil Ugurbil, Ph.D., used the method to produce the first functional magnetic resonance images (fMRI) of humans at the University of Minnesota.

Shulman, who was using magnetic resonance spectroscopy to study metabolic changes in the human brain, saw an opportunity to get similar information at much higher spatial and temporal resolution. His Yale postdoc Andrew Blamire, Ph.D., had learned a technique called echo planar imaging that sped up the process of capturing MR images and was considered critical for exploiting the potential of the BOLD effect for mapping brain function. Shuman directed Blamire, along with fellow postdoc Douglas Rothman, Ph.D. ’87, and Terry Nixon, now director of facilities at Yale’s Magnetic Resonance Resource Center, to soup up the lab’s outdated MRI system to incorporate the speed of echo planar imaging.

When Ogawa and Ugurbil heard that the Yale system had rapid imaging capability, they began a collaboration with Shulman. This work, which also included Gregory McCarthy, Ph.D., now a professor of psychology at Yale, led in 1992 to one of the earliest fMRI studies, the first to show the brain responding to individual events, in this case a single visual stimulus. Shulman’s team subsequently collaborated with McCarthy to perform the first fMRI measurements of a person performing a cognitive task.