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Scanner brain

MRI benefits for all

To remain at the forefront of neuroscience and biomedical research, the University of Otago needs a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner – an incredibly worthy project for the Annual Appeal.

The University of Otago has a healthy love affair with the brain. As the iconic home of the “scarfies”, the University educates thousands of students every year, improving countless minds and fostering a lifelong love of learning. Add to that, a newly-funded Neurological Foundation Chair of Neurosurgery and a cutting edge Brain Health Research Centre with more than 35 research teams spread across departments as diverse as Anatomy and Computer Science, it's clear that Otago is at the forefront of research into the brain.

Which is just as well. As the world's population grows older, there will be more people affected by neurological diseases such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, Huntington's and stroke. Neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism, cerebral palsy and schizophrenia are also increasingly recognised as a major health and societal burden. Researchers at the centre are actively investigating the prevention, cure and treatment of neurological disorders, as well improving our understanding of what makes a healthy brain.

But although Otago researchers have world-class expertise in neuroscience and biomedical research, they are limited by lack of access to technology that would help thembetter understand human body structure and function. MRI technology has revolutionised human neuroscience around the world. Its absence at Otago leaves researchers at a severe competitive disadvantage, according to the centre Director Professor Cliff Abraham.

At an initial cost of around $4 million (including installation), an MRI scanner would be based at Dunedin Hospital, to be used 50 per cent for clinical services and 50 per cent for research. The technology offers the capability of both magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) for non-invasive structural analysis of soft tissue, including brain, as well as magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS) for measurement of body biochemicals such as glycogen and fat, and tissue energetics.

Moreover, functional brain imaging (fMRI) is an additional technology that permits detection of brain areas active during various cognitive activities, or performing tasks, such as pressing buttons when a specific sound is heard.

“It will provide not only a great opportunity for staff, researchers and clinicians here, but also for students and will greatly improve their job prospects.” – Professor Cliff Abraham.

“It will provide not only a great opportunity for staff, researchers and clinicians here, but also for students and will greatly improve their job prospects,” says Abraham.

“The Psychology Department has the highest number of A-rated researchers [on the Performance-Based Research Fund rankings] of any other academic department in New Zealand, but in Psychology and many other departments, brain scanning is a key component to ongoing research. Without this technology, our researchers are at a major disadvantage.”

Clinically speaking, the scanner will speed up waiting lists and allow better results for patients. Although the Dunedin Hospital currently has a 1.5 Tesla (T) strength scanner, there is extremely limited time available for research. Moreover, international standards now demand that fMRI be conducted with a larger 3T magnet.

The technology is also fundamental to supporting the work of the newly-appointed Neurological Foundation Chair in Neurosurgery, Professor Dirk De Ridder, and senior lecturer Dr Reuben Johnson, and ensuring Otago remains a centre of neurosurgical excellence.

While Johnson envisages using the scanner for functional imaging in tumour patients, De Ridder says the technology is vital for both clinical and research purposes, particularly relating to the study of brain plasticity as encountered in disorders such as tinnitus, addiction and depression.

Combining high-density EEG recordings with high-resolution functional MRI will permit a better understanding of resting and activated brain rhythms, which are key features of healthy and pathological brain states, De Ridder says.

“Clinically it has become evident that safety of surgery can be increased by performing DTI/DKI imaging as well as fMRI that can be integrated in preoperative neuronavigation methodology, which is available in the operating theatre in Dunedin. The higher resolution of a 3T machine increases safety of high-risk neurosurgical interventions in eloquent brain areas.

“Performing brain implants for clinically-established indications such as movement disorders [Parkinson's disease, dystonia, tremor] requires high-resolution imaging, not only for safety reasons, but for better visualisation and accurate targeting.”

However, it is not only brain scanning and imaging where the scanner will enhance research projects. According to Abraham, interest in the technology has come from a wide range of departments, including Psychology, Physical Education, Anatomy, Medicine and Human Nutrition. Examples of other uses for the technology include measuring changes in carbohydrate stores (as an alternative to muscle biopsies) during exercise, measuring white fat distribution and brown fat development that affect child obesity rates, as well as a wide range of neurological areas from clinical recovery after neurological injuries to age-related neurological conditions.

“The scanner will be invaluable in 'bringing home' some vital research into a variety of conditions,” says Abraham. “Currently, researchers are having to collaborate with other groups in order to use this technology, but having the scanner here will benefit researchers and students across the board.”

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