Critical tools for unparalleled new programs are in place in the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute. Magnetic resonance imaging machines (MRI) delivered Nov. 17 and Dec. 1, 2010, are part of the new Human Neuroimaging Laboratory and Computational Psychiatry Unit, based in Roanoke, Va.
One project already being discussed is the Roanoke Brain Study. "The research will include a large-scale worldwide analysis of the development of human brain function and decision-making," said Michael J. Friedlander, executive director of the research institute.
Read Montague, developer of the process known as hyperscanning, directs the laboratory. He joined the institute as a professor in mid-November 2010 and also is a professor of physics at Virginia Tech.
Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute investigators will functionally interconnect the two Roanoke MRIs with one that was installed in October at the Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center in Blacksburg, Va.
"These interconnections allow investigators to carry out interactive functional brain imaging studies between multiple individuals at different sites simultaneously, providing unparalleled access to monitor the brain’s activity during social interactions where pairs of groups of individuals communicate with each other through computer interfaces," Friedlander said.
"We will be able to study how such human behavior known as social cognition functions in health and after it is affected in certain disorders that can affect the brain during childhood and throughout the lifespan, such as autism spectrum disorders, dementia including Alzheimer’s disease, and depression, and even in conditions such as substance abuse," he said.
The safe, non-invasive technology -- using no radiation – will allow Virginia Tech Carilion researchers to study how various thoughts, behaviors, and sensations affect the activity within the billions of nerve cells within the brain while studying normal healthy volunteers or persons who may have experienced a change in brain function due to such conditions as stroke, head injury, or various brain disorders that may occur throughout the lifetime.
The Virginia Tech Carilion research team has also developed a worldwide interactive functional brain imaging research network that provides the capacity to interconnect MRIs from multiple sites throughout the world. Agreements are under way with sites in Asia and Europe, Friedlander said. Such functional brain imaging experiments generate large amounts of data that must be stored and analyzed in a protected environment. The research institute manages this with a large adjacent data center that houses multiple racks of computer clusters that collect, store, and process the images and brain responses.
Leading researchers, along with their teams, will heavily use the MRIs at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute.
Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines are powerful magnets that can image the inside of the human body. These particular MRIs will be used primarily in the functional imaging mode (fMRI) to make movies of microscopic blood flow changes within the human brain.
Each MRI generates a magnetic field many times more powerful than that of the earth. The MRIs are housed in heavily shielded rooms, isolating the magnetic field. Because our bodies (including our brains) are made of primarily of water, the magnetic field allows visualization of tissues non-invasively while the subject rests in the scanner or plays a computer game.
The ability to use fMRI to visualize the brain’s activity and structure is due to the properties of iron-containing hemoglobin molecules within the red blood cells that carry oxygen. Hemoglobin changes its magnetic properties after it delivers oxygen to the nerve cells in the brain, providing a detectable fMRI signal known as blood oxygen dependent level. It is this signal that investigators at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute use to monitor brain activity as nerve cells use more oxygen during bouts of enhanced electrical activity.
Take a look back at previous Spotlight features in our archive.