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A new UD facility will house research-quality imaging instruments, including functional MRI (magnetic resonance imaging), used by psychologists and many other disciplines.
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.
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This functional MRI image allows researchers to see pathways that provide communication between different areas of the brain.
In addition to functional images of the brain, UD researchers make
use of MRIs to study such things as tumors in chickens, damage to discs
in the spine, bone development in children and the structure of
materials. When the facility opens next year, Simons said he expects it
to be in demand by researchers in physical therapy, mechanical
engineering, materials science, animal science and numerous other
“This type of imaging is critically important, not just for
psychology but also for biomedical engineering and health sciences,”
said Dawn Elliott, director of UD’s biomedical engineering program. “Having this here will be a big benefit to my research and to many others.”
Elliott, who studies the effects of aging on the discs in the spine
that become compressed over time, currently uses MRI to evaluate these
intervertebral discs in human and goats. She has been transporting the
goats from the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center School of
Veterinary Medicine to center city Philadelphia to scan them in an MRI
at the university’s main campus.
“It’s very expensive and time-consuming, and [the travel] is
stressful for the animals,” Elliott said. After the scan, the goats are
returned, unharmed, to New Bolton, which is near Kennett Square,
Pennsylvania, about 15 miles from the UD campus.
Another UD researcher who uses fMRI technology at other locations is
Timothy Vickery, assistant professor of psychological and brain
sciences, who studies the neural basis of reward learning. He uses fMRI
to assess brain activity and connectivity among brain regions during
reward-driven learning, to better understand how decisions are made on
the basis of past experience.
“I’m very, very excited about the MRI facility, and I think it will
be an important research and recruitment tool for Psychological and
Brain Sciences as well as many other departments and colleges throughout
the University,” Vickery said. “I am sure that it will have a large
impact on undergraduate education as well.”
Charlie Riordan, deputy provost for research and scholarship, said
support for the imaging facility has been “overwhelming” among faculty
“Establishing this new core facility is essential in allowing faculty
in many disciplines to examine the internal structure of materials and
living things,” Riordan said. “This capability can potentially benefit
the work of scholars in all of our colleges. This initiative aligns well
with priority recommendations in UD’s new strategic plan aimed at
excellence in multidisciplinary research and scholarship.”
The multimodal imaging facility project is supported by the
University, the Unidel Foundation and the colleges of Arts and Sciences,
Health Sciences and Engineering. The building was designed by MGA
Architects and is being built by Bancroft Construction Co. The project
manager is Marcia Hutton, UD Facilities Planning and Construction.