UMass Medical School and WPI Collaborate on Neuroimaging

Consortium in Comparative Neuroimaging weds medical knowledge with engineering know-how

Alison Duffy, Public Affairs, UMMS, (508) 856-2000
Contact: WPI Media Relations, 508-831-5616

WORCESTER, Mass. -- Forging a unique interdisciplinary and intercollegiate partnership to foster both medical and engineering research, the University of Massachusetts Medical School and Worcester Polytechnic Institute will formally sign an agreement on December 5 to establish the Consortium in Comparative Neuroimaging. Through the joint effort, psychiatrists, medical researchers, and biomedical, electrical, mechanical and computer engineers will utilize magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technology to study and map anatomical abnormalities of the brain associated with mental illness.

"It is a brilliant combination of medical technology and engineering research, the best work of UMMS and WPI researchers," said William W. Durgin, PhD, Associate Provost at WPI. "It also provides an unparalleled opportunity for students interested in bioscience and bioengineering to participate at the forefront of biomedical engineering."

The center, which will open in the spring of 2002, evolved from the collaborative work of a handful of scientists from both schools, who were using MRI to study brain function. "MRI involves many different areas of physical and biological science and informatics," said John Sullivan, DE, professor of mechanical engineering at WPI. "When we publish a paper it can have 10 or 12 authors, all of whom had a critical role in collecting and analyzing the images." It became obvious that the various disciplines could be brought together in a structured research setting.

"Think of it as cross-pollination," said Jean A. King, PhD, associate professor of psychiatry at UMMS. "We’ll bring the unique talents and expertise of scientists from both institutions to bear on mental health research." King says CCNI will focus on the diagnostic understanding of mental health issues such as depression, drug addiction, fear, impulsiveness, and violence.

Key to the launching of the Consortium was the support of several departments on each campus and the commitment of $3.5 million in infrastructure, personnel, and equipment costs. WPI’s Durgin, Thomas D. Manning, UMMS Vice Chancellor of Operations and Commonwealth Medicine, and John L. Sullivan, MD, professor of pediatrics and molecular medicine and Director of the Medical School’s Office of Research, were instrumental in laying the foundation for the CCNI to move forward. In addition, John F. Carney III, PhD, Provost at WPI, noted, "Some renovations have already been completed. WPI has supported the renovation of laboratory space in the Atwater Kent building and the purchase of specialized instrumentation, computers, and software." The Medical School’s Office of the Chancellor and Department of Psychiatry have also supported the project.

The CCNI, whose faculty are partially funded by the National Institutes of Health, will be a learning lab for WPI students studying bioengineering, computer engineering, electrical and mechanical engineering, and for UMMS MD/PhD candidates in psychiatry, neurology, pediatrics and oncology.

Central to the research to be conducted by the Consortium will be two state-of-the-art, ultra-high-field magnetic resonance spectrometers. "The magnets allow us to follow how the environment shapes the development and function of the brain throughout life," said Craig Ferris, PhD, CCNI director and professor of psychiatry at UMMS. "They provide images of exquisite detail and can show brain sites as small as the tip of a pen."

The Consortium also creates the inaugural center of WPI’s recently founded Bioengineering Institute. Because MRI technology relies on several varied fields of science, engineering students interested in imaging are required to follow a specialized sequence of courses. Toward this end, Reinhold Ludwig, PhD, WPI professor of electrical and computer engineering, has developed a new curriculum to train students in the engineering aspects of MRI.

"For example, we will develop new radio frequency antenna technology for sending and receiving the electromagnetic signals used in collecting the data that produce the images," Ludwig said. "Students can generate realistic computer simulations of the magnetic field lines interacting with the animal’s brain. These numerical models allow us to predict and optimize on a computer the performance of the antenna. With the theoretical models as a template, the student is able to construct a high-performance antenna whose actual performance as a tool for brain imaging can immediately be evaluated in the magnets at UMMS. This practical lab experience will be of tremendous value to future generations of engineering students with interests in high-field magnetic resonance imaging."

The CCNI is housed in a modular building attached to the Medical School’s Brudnick Neuropsychiatric Research Institute, located across from the main UMMS campus on the former Worcester State Hospital grounds. Researchers are currently configuring the space to allow for teaching, diagnostic modeling and collaboration. In addition, WPI’s Atwater Kent building provides facilities for engineers who will focus on the mechanical and electrical support of the MRIs and the computation of the images into useable data. Although much of the research will be conducted on mouse models, the ultimate application for the technology will be human psychiatric disorders. The goal is to allow researchers to examine the biological components of substance abuse, anger, aggression and stress, and to compare the neurological images of patients with a genetic predisposition to various mental illnesses.

"Ultimately, instead of trying to match a list of behavioral symptoms with a particular mental illness," said King, "we expect to be able to order an MRI to screen for structural anomalies and assist with that patient’s diagnosis and, we hope, cure."