February 9, 2009- It’s a classic academic mismatch: Researchers aren’t able to make use of seminal improvements in technology—often from colleagues just across the street—either because they don’t know about them or because gaining familiarity makes unrealistic demands on their time.
For those very reasons, Johns Hopkins’ Brain Science Institute is underwriting the Center for Translational Imaging (CTI). The new enterprise aims to channel expertise from Hopkins’ various imaging-dedicated centers into creating a surge, university-wide, in the understanding and use of imaging techniques for neuroscience research.
The translational goals are both immediate and long-term, says magnetic resonance physicist and CTI Co-Director Susumu Mori. Immediately, the idea is to make accessible very high-quality anatomical MRI, MR spectroscopy, functional MRI, PET and newer offshoots such as diffusion tensor imaging. The prime targets of such “upgrades” are researchers with basic and clinical neuroscience studies in fields such as neurology, psychiatry, developmental biology, psychology, genetics, pathology and biomedical engineering.
But the center’s ultimate purpose—and basis for Brain Science Institute support—upholds the traditional meaning of translational. Ideally, improved imaging in Hopkins’ brain-oriented projects will hasten therapies for brain diseases.
The timing is right. “It’s no coincidence that we’re starting our center now,” Mori says. “There’s currently a bottleneck in the imaging field that interferes with the progress of biomedical research.” But the problem, he says, isn’t in the ability to acquire good data from imaging.
“That was the bottleneck 15 years ago,” says Mori. “Now, however, high-quality MRI and PET scanners are available. Their new technology lets users access state-of-the-art capabilities just by pushing buttons. Yet we’re victims of our own success; quality images are so easily generated that the volume overwhelms researchers and clinicians.”
The new bottleneck, Mori says, lies in not being able to quantify information from a glut of images or interpret it rapidly enough. It’s the access to good image analysis that must increase.
The CTI aims to improve things, University-wide, with several approaches. First, they’ll set up a “protocol core” staffed by expert advisors who’ll review proposed studies and offer guidance in collecting images. They’ll also refer researchers to an appropriate Hopkins imaging data acquisition site. Sites include the F.M. Kirby Research Center for Functional Brain Imaging at the Kennedy Krieger Institute, the Molecular Imaging Center in the Broadway Research Building, the Department of Radiology’s PET Center, Radiology’s MRI Service Center and its Animal NMR Service Center.
Once high-quality images are generated, the core serves as a bridge to analysis in several ways. For one, it offers training—both individual and group—in the most widely used image analysis techniques. This educational arm of CTI will make computers and training available on a daily basis. “We anticipate high demand for this service,” says Marilyn Albert, another of CTI’s co-directors. “The interest is already there.”
In addition, the CTI aims to centralize services for image analysis, particularly for projects with high-quality anatomical images. Though still in the planning stages, two image analysis stations will open, one, under Mori, in the Traylor Building on the medical campus and another, headed by CTI Co-Director Michael Miller, at Homewood’s Center for Imaging Science.
At first, CTI will charge for its comprehensive analysis, but the ultimate hope is to automate the process so fully that investigators can perform it, gratis, in their own laboratories. “That ability is critical because it will free the center to create even more advanced image analysis and share it,” Mori adds.
Especially helpful, the planners say, is CTI’s “grant support core” opening this year. The intent is to provide the pilot funding that lets studies incorporate useful, quality human or animal imaging, making investigators more likely to get outside grant awards.
These improvements will come in phases. While imaging analysis occurs now at Hopkins, CTI’s efforts will ultimately add workstations, improve the ease of analysis and foster wider use of high-quality imaging.
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The interests of the CTI’s three architects bring considerable breadth to the new center. Susumu Mori, with the School of Medicine’s Department of Radiology, was key in developing the MRI capability to study brain anatomy.
Biomedical Engineering’s Michael Miller, who directs the Center for Imaging Science in the Whiting School of Engineering, pioneered the field of computational anatomy. Getting computers to generate anatomically correct brain regions, he says, should enable scientists to relate changes in brain structure to patient symptoms in schizophrenia, depression, Alzheimer’s disease and others.
Neurology’s Marilyn Albert, who directs that department’s Division of Cognitive Neuroscience, is well known for work to understand the clinical biomarkers—including those derived from brain imaging—associated with aging and Alzheimer’s disease.
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