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Pushing the Frontiers of Human Brain Imaging

Dr. Dean WongDr. Dean Wong

Ever imagine what it would be like to see the brain’s activity or chemical changes in milliseconds? Dean Wong is building the technology to make that happen.

Q: Would you please explain more about your research interests?

A: I’ve been at Hopkins since 1980, and in that time I’ve seen noninvasive brain imaging of patients go from science fiction to reality. Not only is it fascinating to see brain processes in action, but we can also use imaging to help figure out what may be part of the chemical abnormality in mental illness such as depression or psychosis, or neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s. For example, I was on the team that first used PET scans to visualize dopamine in the brain, and we later learned how dopamine signaling is disrupted in people with schizophrenia.

Q: What are the limits of current clinical brain imaging technologies?

A: The short version is that their resolution is somewhat low, more in terms of time than space. We want to be able to zoom in on smaller areas of the brain to see more detail; perhaps more importantly, we want to be able to see the lightning-fast changes that occur when neurons fire. Neither PET nor fMRI can do that at present.

Q: And how do you plan to do that?

A: Key to the process are the right dyes; we’re designing nontoxic dyes that respond to electrical and neurochemical changes in the brain by giving off either light or ultrasound signals. Another challenge is to get the dyes to the brain without opening up the skull. To do that, we’re planning to devise nanoparticles that could be injected into the bloodstream and deliver the dyes where they’re needed. Finally, we need to devise a machine that can detect the dyes through the skull. We’re envisioning that as something that fits like a helmet, as opposed to the huge metal tube people need to go into for an MRI. It’s a very multidisciplinary project that requires expertise from across Hopkins — and for that matter, the world.

Read more about Dr. Wong’s next-generation imaging technology.