New tech might bolster brain research

New University projects will develop a smaller MRI device and better image sensitivity.

Kaylee Kruschke

Traditional magnetic resonance imagining, or MRI, machines have their patients drawn into a large, noisy tube.

But now, the MRI process could become as simple as strapping on a helmet, thanks to a new technology partly developed by University of Minnesota scientists.

The project is one of two University projects that received a total of $2.5 million through two National Institutes of Health grants late last month. It was a part of President Barack Obama’s Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Technologies Initiative, or BRAIN, project. 

The initiative supports high-risk neuroimaging projects that would otherwise struggle to secure funding, radiology professor Michael Garwood said.

While both University research projects focus on MRI technology, one will improve existing imaging and the other will create a brand new method of administering the test.

“We need to make MRI more portable, more accessible and lower cost before we retire,” Garwood said.

Lifting the limits of today’s MRIs

Although current MRI tests are only available to an estimated 5 percent of the world’s population, a small, helmet-like MRI device could enable neuroscience studies and treatment in places they haven’t yet touched.

“It can go into Africa or wherever,” said Garwood, a co-lead researcher. “You can do neuroscience on populations of people and cultures we’ve never dreamt of before because you have to go out into the field to do it.”

While they’re important for gathering neuroscience information, current MRI scanners where patients lie on their back and can’t move aren’t able to study motion disorders or a person playing a piano or riding a bike, Garwood said.

“[It] is very limited to the types of things you can study,” he said. “If we could just put a magnet over somebody’s head and the rest of the body is free, it can open up a bunch of studies in neuroscience.”

The smaller MRI device would allow patients to sit or stand upright with only their head contained inside the machine, and possibly with their eyes exposed, said Thomas Vaughan, a co-lead researcher and radiology professor.

With their three-year, $1.2 million grant, the researchers won’t actually develop the smaller machine, Vaughan said, but they will prove it’s a feasible idea. From there, the researchers will have to apply for other funding to actually develop the smaller device, he added.

The University has already developed most of what it needs to prove that it can develop the device. All that’s left to develop is a magnet, Vaughan said, which the federal funding will be focused on.

MRI devices use a magnet composed of many wires that must be kept at absolute-zero temperature by a thermos filled with liquid helium to function, Vaughan said.

To develop a smaller MRI device, Vaughan said, researchers plan to use other wires that can be cooled with other less expensive and more readily available techniques, like liquid nitrogen.

Garwood said he and Vaughan have been dreaming about revolutionizing MRIs for at least a decade.

“We can’t think of a better goal, or at least we’ll die trying to give [MRI technology] to the rest of the world in the last decade or so of our
careers,” Vaughan said.

Creating better MRI picture resolution

Radiology professor Wei Chen wants to look as closely at the brain as possible without entering actually entering the body.

Through a partnership with Penn State University, his project will try to streamline current MRI devices and make them more efficient and less expensive, Chen said.

By combining existing technologies and techniques with a cutting-edge material, Chen said his engineering solution would increase imaging sensitivity, reduce the amount of energy the machine uses and improve an image’s resolution.

“[We could] see more details about the brain functions, how they work together and how they help each other,” Chen said.

With improved imaging sensitivity, invasive techniques would not be necessary to look deeper into the brain at cerebral structure and responses, Chen said.

“We feel there’s just not enough [imaging] sensitivity,” Chen said, adding that he hopes his technology will increase imaging sensitivity by two to five times.

And because it would take less time to obtain a high-quality photo of the brain, Chen said his method would reduce the amount of time patients have to be in an MRI machine.

Chen said he has already begun developing the technology, but that the $1.3 million NIH grant will continue that work and hopefully help prove its success.

“If we can prove this concept works, it will open new opportunities to do real challenging neuroscience application,” Chen said.