New grants through President Obama’s BRAIN Initiative will allow University of Minnesota researchers to dive deeper into the brain, developing new imaging technology with the potential to map and study neural activity to much greater detail.

The two 5-year RO1 grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), totaling $9.4 million, aim to advance functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) technology. MRI measures the structure of the brain, while fMRI allows researchers to also image neural activity by detecting changes in blood flow within the brain.

The Center for Magnetic Resonance Research (CMRR) will lead the research, with collaborations across the Medical SchoolCollege of Liberal Arts, and College of Science & Engineering, and with investigators from the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC).

“Although fMRI has become the most popular neuroimaging tool for studying human brain function, there are still important questions about how well fMRI can ‘see’ inside the brain and what types of underlying neural interactions can be mapped by fMRI,” said Wei Chen, Ph.D., professor at CMRR and principle investigator (PI) of one of the grants. Chen is also a professor in the Medical School’s Department of Radiology.

“We’re excited to get started,”  said Kamil Ugurbil, Ph.D., director of CMRR. “These studies will significantly advance our capabilities for imaging the activity in the human brain, which will improve our ability to diagnose, study and understand various brain conditions.”

Chen’s team will:

  • Develop a new, MRI-compatible, non-metallic high-density electrode array, which can be used to simultaneously stimulate the brain while imaging;
  • The electrode could also lead to MRI-compatible deep brain stimulation (DBS), which has been impossible up to this point because the stimulation devices contain metal;
  • Image areas of the brain with fine spatial scale that have not yet been mapped, including the ‘columnar’ and ‘laminar’ levels

“The high-resolution fMRI uses very high magnetic field scanners at CMRR, allowing us to not only see everywhere in the brain but also able to zoom in to the brain at very high resolution,” Chen said.

Ugurbil will co-lead the second grant with Cheryl Olman, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Psychology within the College of Liberal Arts. Their team will utilize fMRI and two-photon optical imaging to:

  • Explore the relationship between blood flow and neural activity to detect changes in brain activity;
  • Study brain activity at a single-neuron level and link it to fMRI signals;
  • Provide much greater specificity to scientists’ knowledge of imaging brain function;

“Utilizing CMRR’s world-leading 10.5 T magnet, as well as similar machines operating at different magnetic field strengths, we will test our hypotheses in model systems,” said Olman. “Once validated, this model will be an important new link between human fMRI and optical imaging studies.”

Findings from both projects could broaden the impact of human brain imaging, leading to potential discoveries related to neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and stroke.

Co-investigators on Dr. Chen’s team include: Ugurbil, CMRR; Xiao-Hong Zhu, Ph.D., associate professor in CMRR; Rajesh Rajamani, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering;  Zhi Yang, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering; and Esther Krook-Magnuson, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Neuroscience; and Mark Thomas, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Neuroscience.

Additional principal investigators on Ugurbil and Olman’s team are: Prakash Kara, Ph.D., associate professor, MUSC; and Thomas Naselaris, Ph.D., assistant professor MUSC. Co-investigators are: Chen, CMRR; Zhu, CMRR; and Essa Yacoub, Ph.D., professor in CMRR.