Significant research equipment has been moving into the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute for weeks. A magnetic resonance imaging machine (MRI) being delivered on Nov. 17 is particularly noteworthy. For one thing, it weighs 30,000 pounds and the move-in will be dramatic. More significant, it is a critical tool for unparalleled new programs, including the Roanoke Brain Study. "The research will include a large scale worldwide analysis of the development of human brain function and decision-making," said Michael J. Friedlander, executive director of the research institute.

A second MRI will be delivered in December. They will be part of the new Human Neuroimaging Laboratory and Computational Psychiatry Unit to be directed by Read Montague, developer of the process known as hyperscanning. Read joined the institute as a professor Nov. 15, and also is a professor of physics at Virginia Tech.

The Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute investigators will functionally interconnect the two Roanoke MRIs with one that was installed in October at the Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center in Blacksburg. "These interconnections allow investigators to carry out interactive functional brain imaging studies between multiple individuals at different sites simultaneously, providing unparalleled access to monitor the brain’s activity during social interactions where pairs of groups of individuals communicate with each other through computer interfaces," said Friedlander. "We will be able to study how such human behavior known as social cognition functions in health and after it is affected in certain disorders that can affect the brain during childhood and throughout the lifespan, such as autism spectrum disorders, dementia including Alzheimer’s disease, and depression, and even in conditions such as substance abuse."

The safe, non-invasive technology -- using absolutely no radiation – will allow Virginia Tech Carilion researchers to study how various thoughts, behaviors, and sensations affect the activity within the billions of nerve cells within the brain while studying normal healthy volunteers or persons who may have experienced a change in brain function due to such conditions as stroke, head injury, or various brain disorders that may occur throughout the lifetime.

The Virginia Tech Carilion research team has also developed a worldwide interactive functional brain imaging research network that provides the capacity to interconnect MRIs from multiple sites across the United States and throughout the world. Agreements are underway with sites in Asia and Europe, said Friedlander. Such functional brain imaging experiments generate large amounts of data that must be stored and analyzed in a protected environment. The research institute manages this with a large adjacent data center that houses multiple racks of computer clusters that collect, store, and process the images and brain responses.

About the researchers

Leading human brain researchers who, with their teams, will heavily use the MRIs at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute are:

Read Montague is the world leader in the use of fMRI in the study of the underpinnings of how the human brain creates and utilizes social cognition. His work, strongly based in computation and mathematics, has provided unique insights into the normal human brain’s ability to make decisions as well as how such functions are affected such conditions as autism, personality disorders, and addiction and substance abuse. His article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences prompted coverage by the BBC and many others. An article about his research on investment decisions was covered in the New York Times magazine, which was then covered by Wired and others.

Warren Bickel studies how the brain discounts time in the future when we make decisions about our health, including smoking. He will join the group in February.

Brooks King-Casas uses fMRI to study how the human brain is affected by traumatic brain injury and post traumatic stress disorder in civilians and in veterans. He joined the institute in September.

Stephen LaConte is developing fMRI as a potential therapeutic tool to monitor the brain's state continuously and to provide feedback to the person in the scanner. He will join the institute in January.

Pearl Chiu uses fMRI to probe the mysteries of the human mind when functions go awry, such as in depression or post traumatic stress disorder. She will join the group in February.

Investigators from the Virginia Tech campus will also use the facility in their research programs.

About MRIs

The MRIs are powerful magnets that can image the inside of the living human body. These particular MRIs will be used primarily in the functional imaging mode (fMRI) where they are used to make movies of microscopic blood flow changes within the living human brain.

Each MRI generates a magnetic field many times more powerful than that of the earth. The MRIs are housed in heavily shielded rooms isolating the magnetic field. Because our bodies (including our brains) are made of primarily of water, the magnetic field allows visualization of the structure of living tissues non-invasively while the subject rests comfortably in the scanner or plays a computer game. The ability to use fMRI to visualize the brain’s activity and structure is due to the properties of iron-containing hemoglobin molecules within the red blood cells that carry oxygen. Hemoglobin changes its magnetic properties after it delivers oxygen to the nerve cells in the brain, providing a detectable fMRI signal known as blood oxygen dependent level. It is this signal that investigators at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute use to monitor brain activity as nerve cells use more oxygen during bouts of enhanced electrical activity.

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