Superfast MRI technology helps map human brain

March 10, 2011 12:00:00 AM PST
Researchers at the University of California are using a breakthrough technology to look at the human brain. It's a new type of MRI and its producing images at speeds never before thought possible.

If MRI machines had wings, UC Berkeley physicist David Feinberg, Ph.D., would probably be crashing the sound barrier. As it is, he is creating images of the brain at speeds up to 30 times faster than even the most advanced research MRIs.

"When we made the first images, it was unbelievably fast," said Feinberg. "That's the scan, because the images are obtained simultaneously."

He says the acceleration is the result of a breakthrough devised in a collaboration led by the University of Minnesota. It combines multiple radio frequency pulses to image different parts of the brain simultaneously. The signals are separated out by multiple receivers which measure the location and timing, producing a much faster scan.

"We used to be able to scan the brain the very fastest, with the echoplane imaging, in two to three seconds and now we're able to image in 100 to 300 milliseconds," said Feinberg.

With its leap in speed, researchers now believe the accelerated MRI could have an immediate impact on the most ambitious project ever undertaken to study the human brain.

It's dubbed the Human Connectome Project. Researchers at centers around the country are attempting to map the neural pathways that support human brain function, ultimately drawing a map of the brain's communication network.

"We're able to identify the networks much better and see more of them and more accurately," said Feinberg.

And by understanding the pathways of a normal brain, researchers believe they may unearth clues to disorders ranging from autism to Alzheimer's disease -- a quest that's now being accelerated by this new generation of MRI.

Written and produced by Tim Didion

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