Researchers at UC Berkeley receive $13M to construct next-generation MRI brain scanner

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UC Berkeley has received $13.4 million to build a next-generation MRI brain scanner, which will allow researchers to view minute details of the brain with more clarity than before.

This scanner’s new technology will increase the resolution of images by a factor of 20, according to a campus press release. Funding for the project comes from the National Institute of Health through the BRAIN Initiative grant, which was introduced by former president Barack Obama in 2013 to support innovative and high-impact work in neuroscience.

Currently, there is some limitation in brain imaging at a neuronal level because of the low resolution of existing scanners, said Chunlei Liu, campus associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science, who specializes in brain imaging. Most of the existing scientific knowledge of neurons is from research involving animals, which uses invasive imaging techniques to view individual neurons.

“There are microscopic structures that are fundamental to how the brain’s organized,” said Michael Silver, a campus associate professor of vision science, optometry and neuroscience. “Until now, it’s been very difficult to have an instrument that is able to record spaces of tissue that are too small for us to study.”

The new scanner, also known as NextGen 7T, will use a noninvasive system while also looking at a fine level of spatial resolution. The study of human brain function at such a fine level would make the results comparable to existing invasive studies of animal cells and circuits.

This level of accuracy will be especially useful in imaging the cerebral cortex, Silver said. Within the cortex, there are microcircuits in the shape of columns that previous brain imaging could not adequately capture. High-resolution recording will allow researchers to record each layer of the cortex to show how the individual neurons function differently.

“This is important because it bridges the gap in terms of our understanding of the brain at the neurological level,” Liu said. “We have understanding of the human brain based on psychology and cognitive science, but there’s a huge gap between these two.”

An understanding of the cerebral cortex at a neuronal level could contribute to medical research on neurological diseases, Silver said.

According to Liu, the scanner will also be able to detect certain brain disorders that current MRI scanners cannot. He added that the goal of this new model is to help researchers better understand the chemicals that lead to disorders such as epilepsy and Alzheimer’s disease.

“To understand how diseases like mental illness are affecting the brain … if we can see it better, we can treat it better,” said David Feinberg, an adjunct professor in the campus’s Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute.

There are currently no machines that can achieve the level of spatial resolution that UC Berkeley’s scanner will have, Silver said. According to Liu, Berkeley has a history of success in MRI, and the development of this scanner will have a significant impact on universities and hospitals nationwide.

“I think we have a very strong brain imaging community, but having the expertise and technology will make us a world leader,” Silver said. “It’ll give us a prominence in the field.”

The new scanner is slated to be complete by 2019, according to the press release.

Contact Gioia von Staden at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @GioiaVon.