When a doctor examines an injured
athlete for a possible torn ligament, she wants to get a detailed look
at the structure of that ligament, and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
can provide exactly what she needs.
But when a researcher is studying how the human brain works, a standard MRI is often not enough.
“You can’t tell much about the brain by its structure alone. You need
to be able to see how it functions,” said Robert Simons, professor and
chair of the University of Delaware’s Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences.
“When you have an MRI that shows function, you can see parts of the
brain ‘light up’ when a task is performed, and that shows you which
structures and neural networks the brain is using while engaged in the
task at hand.”
A specialized type of MRI, called fMRI for “functional,” is needed
for that type of imaging, Simons said. A research-quality fMRI offers
other features as well, including a stronger magnet that can provide
more detailed pictures than a standard medical image and will also
benefit scientists who need higher-resolution images of the structures
that they investigate.
And soon — for the first time on campus and in the state of Delaware — UD will have one of these instruments.
Construction began in mid-March on a two-story extension to the Life
Sciences Research Facility on Delaware Avenue. When completed in early
2016, the 11,800-square-foot addition will provide space for an fMRI
machine, which will be delivered and lowered into the building’s first
floor by crane, probably in January. Plans call for construction to be
completed in February and for staff members to move in shortly after.
The addition, known as a multimodal imaging center, will also have
conference and office space, facilities for visitors and patients,
flexible research space for satellite experiments before and after
imaging and space for researchers to house smaller imaging instruments.
Some of the other instruments will be in place soon after construction,
while others may be acquired over time.
But the large, research-quality fMRI has been ordered and is the
priority, said Simons, who with Tatyana Polenova, professor of chemistry
and biochemistry, led the faculty task force to plan the imaging
“Before this building, we’ve had no way of doing any of this kind of
[cutting-edge brain] research,” he said. “And in competing with
universities in Maryland, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, for example, that
do have research MRIs, we were clearly at a disadvantage. … President
Harker supported this project because he recognized that this kind of
imaging capability can no longer be limited to universities with medical
schools; there’s a demand for it in all kinds of disciplines.”
In developing proposals for the new facility, Simons and others on
the task force held meetings across campus and found researchers in many
departments and colleges who were either already using MRIs in their
work or were hoping to do so. Faculty members relying on this kind of
imaging, Simons said, have been spending time traveling out of state and
paying high hourly rates to use research MRIs at other institutions.
Those instruments, like standard MRIs used routinely for medical
diagnosis of a number of conditions, use a large magnet and sequences of
radio waves to get a picture of organs and structures in the body, as
well as to analyze inanimate objects.