October 30, 2000

UCSD FMRI Center Will Give San Diego Researchers Ability to Map Brain Activity

University of California San Diego, in close collaboration with the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, has announced plans to establish a $13.5 million UCSD Center for Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI). Expected to be the largest brain imaging facility dedicated to research in the Western United States, the center will include four powerful imaging devices, two for human studies and two for animals, and will be available for use by researchers throughout the region.

fMRI Rendering Construction for the 6,500 square-foot facility, located next to the UCSD School of Medicine in La Jolla, is expected to begin November 6, with completion in October 2001. RBB Architect, Inc. of Los Angeles, designed the facility, and the general contractor is Soltek Pacific, of San Diego.

According to Ruth Covell, M.D., associate dean, UCSD School of Medicine, fundraising efforts for the new center are continuing while the project proceeds.

The primary focus of the research in the Center will be neuroscience applications in human subjects involving researchers from the UCSD departments of psychiatry, psychology, neuroscience, cognitive science and radiology. The Center will also support a range of biomedical applications and basic studies of heart, lung and muscle physiology. Although the bulk of the work done at the Center will be by San Diego researchers, the facilities will be available to outside investigators, as well. Any scientist can submit a proposal to the Center’s review committee to request access.

In a clinical setting, conventional MRI is a noninvasive tool that provides detailed pictures of the anatomy of the brain. Functional MRI expands on this imaging capability to give researchers the ability to observe the dynamic, internal functions of the brain in action. For example, fMRI is able to pinpoint the location in the brain of the neural activity involved in tapping a finger or listening to Mozart. Functional MRI works by measuring changes in blood flow during neural activity, giving researchers the ability to simultaneously monitor changes in activity throughout the brain with a time resolution of about one second.

According to Richard Buxton, Ph.D., director of the new center and a UCSD professor of radiology, fMRI is a powerful tool for developing a better understanding of behavior, perception, memory and language, allowing researchers to probe regions of the brain that are not functioning normally in disorders such as stroke and epilepsy, and degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

UCSD and VA Medical Center researcher Larry R. Squire, Ph.D., adds that “the human brain has been, in many ways, like a ‘black box’. With fMRI, it becomes possible to look inside the ‘black box’ and to learn far more about the nature of memory and its disorders.”

Martin Sereno, Ph.D. of the Cognitive Science Department, notes that “in the past, high resolution brain imaging was often confined to single shot studies. Since fMRI is safe and quick, we can look at an individual’s brain again and again, as they mature and as they develop skills. We can for the first time examine many different parts of a single brain by having the individual perform many different tasks so that we can get a much higher resolution picture of the mind in action.”

The UCSD fMRI Center is based on UCSD campus-wide collaborative research efforts that have grown over the past five years. In addition, more than 40 investigators at UCSD, Salk and the San Diego Veterans Affairs Medical Center have built a broad-based, interdisciplinary research program in fMRI, using patient-dedicated MRI systems during non-clinic evening and weekend hours to run their studies.

Magnetic field strength is measured in units called “Tesla,” and a standard MRI system operates at 1.5 Tesla – 30,000 times stronger than the earth’s magnetic field. While this was sufficient for much of the researchers’ work, state of the art research requires more sensitive fMRI systems operating at higher magnetic fields.

To meet the need for more sensitive imagers, the new center will include 3 Tesla and 4 Tesla systems for human studies, a 4.7 Tesla system for non-human primate studies, and a 7 Tesla system, supported by the UCSD Whitaker Institute of Biomedical Engineering, for research with mice and rats. All four devices are provided by the same manufacturer, Varian, Inc., making it possible for investigators to span the size scale from mice to humans with one integrated set of instruments and software.

The primary focus of research in the Center will be neuroscience applications in human subjects as UCSD, Salk and VA Medical Center investigators look at visual perception and attention, cognition, learning and memory, language development, the control of movement, various levels of consciousness, and a range of brain disorders including schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s disease.

Just a few examples:

In addition to these neuroscience research programs, the UCSD fMRI Center will support a core research program designed to develop the next generation of fMRI tools.

“Despite the widespread use of fMRI for brain research, there is still a great deal that is not known about the real connections between neural activity and changes in blood flow that produce the signal we measure,” Buxton said. “We hope to advance the state-of-the-art of fMRI by developing a deeper understanding of these connections.”

Among the research goals are the development of new hardware and software for improved image acquisition, the development of new fMRI techniques for measuring functional activity in the brain, improved data analysis, the integration of fMRI data with other measurements (such as EEG), and techniques for mapping the connections between brain regions.

Joining Buxton in directing the UCSD fMRI Center will be Eric Wong, Ph.D., M.D., associate director of imaging and UCSD associate professor of radiology and psychiatry; Lawrence Frank, Ph.D., associate director of biomedical applications and UCSD and San Diego Veterans Affairs Medical Center assistant professor of radiology; Martin Sereno, Ph.D., associate director of fMRI technique development and UCSD professor of cognitive science; and Geoffrey Boynton, Ph.D., associate director of neuroscience applications and assistant professor with the Systems Neuroscience Laboratory at Salk.


Media Contact: Sue Pondrom
619/543-6163  spondrom@ucsd.edu

For high resolution files of the renderings:  http://health.ucsd.edu/news/2000/2000_10_27_fMRIphotos.html

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