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Archived from February 2011


Mapping the Brain with a State-of-the-Art Scanner

Rutgers acquires a device that can advance brain research

By Jeff May
Mapping the Brain with a State-of-the-Art Scanner
Credit: Nick Romanenko
Stephen J. Hanson, professor and director of the Rutgers University Brain Imaging Center.

Rutgers is acquiring high-end equipment that could significantly accelerate the pace of brain research by mapping brain activity.

The Siemens Trio 3T MRI scanner will be the centerpiece of the new Rutgers University Brain Imaging Center (RUBIC), based at Rutgers-Newark.

The device, known as a functional magnetic resonance imaging scanner, uses a powerful magnet and radio waves to measure blood flow changes in the brain.

The data is transformed into images that show – in pyrotechnic color – which parts of the brain blaze with activity when a person is asked questions, performs specific mental tasks or is exposed to stimuli such as light or sound.

Brain research is rapidly evolving, and the scanner can shed light on a number of areas: human learning and decision-making; language development; how people process what they see; the impact of traumatic brain injury; and the degree to which disorders such as autism, schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s disease affect perception, memory, and behavior. 

Rutgers neuroscientists and psychologists have delved deeply into those fields in recent years, but have been hampered by a lack of nearby imaging facilities. Princeton University and New York University have earlier-generation scanners capable of brain mapping, but those are heavily booked and can cost more than $1,200 an hour for open slots. Other research centers require long travel times and expensive fees.

Credit: Courtesy of Brown University
Siemens Trio 3T MRI scanner will be the centerpiece of the Rutgers University Brain Imaging Center (RUBIC), based at Rutgers-Newark.

Several research universities recently sought National Science Foundation funding for the state-of-the-art scanners, but only Rutgers won a grant to acquire one during the latest funding cycle. The $1.82 million award ensures the university will be home to the most cutting-edge model in the metropolitan area.

“We’re certainly the first kids on the block to have this,” said Stephen José Hanson, RUBIC’s director and a leading researcher on memory, learning and brain function.

A 2,000-square-foot suite for the equipment will be built in the Aidekman Research Center on the Newark Campus. Construction is expected to be completed in February.

Eighteen core researchers – drawn from Rutgers, the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, New Jersey Institute of Technology and the Kessler Foundation Research Center – will account for the majority of imaging time initially. Besides Hanson, key members of the group include Mauricio Delgado, an expert in the emerging field of neuroeconomics, or the study of how the brain makes decisions based on rewards and punishments, and Bart Krekelberg, a prominent researcher on visual processing.

Hanson said the strong, interdisciplinary lineup was a key factor in winning the National Science Foundation grant. “We had a particularly good proposal and could show that the research need was high,” he said. “And we had an excellent team of researchers that was put together for the first time in this proposal.”

Going forward, dozens of other applicants from an array of disciplines will be encouraged to make use of the facilities.

Test subjects will have to go through special screening to ensure they aren’t wearing jewelry, piercings and other bits of metal when entering the scanner. Similarly, people with pacemakers and other medical devices that might be affected by the machine will be weeded out. The device has a magnetic strength of 3 Tesla , or roughly  five times the pull of the earth’s magnetic field. That much magnetic energy is enough to heat up a test subject’s tattoos, Hanson said.