COLUMBIA — Researchers Shawn Christ and John Kerns both agree that without MU’s new Brain Imaging Center, only a fraction of their research would likely ever be completed.
“There’s no way for the research to survive without the center,” said Kerns, an associate professor of psychological sciences at MU. “There would be no way to do it.”
A dedication celebration for the center was recently held, but researchers such as Christ, whose focus is better understanding autism in children, and Kerns, who is looking for better ways to prevent and treat schizophrenia, have conducted research there for more than a year now.
Before then, one of the only options Christ and Kerns had for conducting brain imaging research was to use University Hospital’s magnetic resonance scanner.
That was not as easy as it sounds, though.
The hospital’s scanner is tailored for patient care and not ideal for research, said Christ, an assistant professor of psychological sciences at MU. And the allotted times available to researchers for use of the machine were often limited to Saturday mornings.
Now MU is home to the only magnetic resonance scanner in mid-Missouri used solely for scientific research, said Nelson Cowan. Cowan, the center’s director and Curators’ professor of psychological sciences, is researching the brain’s capacity for memory retention.
Many major universities have access to a magnetic resonance machine in a hospital setting, but “only a handful” do in a non-hospital setting, Cowan said.
The renovation of the building for the new center cost $3.8 million, and the new equipment accounts for about half of that total, Cowan said.
The magnetic resonance scanner at the center is specifically designed for scientific research and features a computer screen for testing visual stimuli and earphones and a microphone so that researchers and the person in the machine can communicate with each other.
The scanner can provide researchers with both magnetic resonance images, which show the structure of the brain, and functional magnetic resonance images, which show the parts of the brain that are active during specific tasks.
It also has the ability to examine neural tracts in a method called diffusion tensor imaging. With some auxiliary equipment, the scanner will have the ability to scan the body and its metabolism in addition to the brain.
A “practice scanner,” which simulates what the scanning experience will be like, is also available.
Any MU department can use the scanner for research, and roughly 15 departments have already expressed an interest in using the center, Cowan said. There is a fee of $372 per hour for use of the scanner. Expertise on operating the machine is an additional $46 per hour, but Cowan said the center is willing to share the expenses for new projects to get them going until grant funding can be obtained.
Christ, who is working with the Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders to study autism, said that about 60 to 70 percent of his research depends on the imaging center.
One of his projects involves tracking changes in brain activity in children with autism while they perform attention tasks requiring them to ignore distracting information. Christ said that once they determine which regions of the brain are most affected in autism, they can then look for ways to develop an intervention to help the child’s brain focus better.
His second primary project tests children with autism before and after participating in a 10-week social competence intervention developed by MU special education professor Janine Stichter. Christ said the intervention is successful for most children, but he hopes to use magnetic resonance imaging and other tools to help predict for whom the intervention will and will not be beneficial, thus allowing some families to avoid committing their resources to an intervention that does not assist them.
“Our ultimate goal is to better understand cognitive and brain development,” Christ said. “It will help us design more effective interventions for children and adults with diseases affecting the brain.”
Kerns is conducting research on people with schizophrenia to help explain why they often have trouble controlling their thoughts and emotions. By scanning people during the performance of a test involving psychological control, Kerns has determined that those with schizophrenia have a problem activating the frontal cortex of their brain. He also scans people over time to see if strategies such as offering rewards can rehabilitate the individual’s brain.
Kerns hopes to understand the risk of developing schizophrenia and the mechanisms behind the risks in order to treat and prevent the disorder.
Both Christ and Kerns experienced limitations when trying to conduct research through the hospital’s scanner and are grateful for the new imaging center.
“The center is vital for productive research,” Kerns said. “If there are treatments found through our research, they will hopefully be implemented in Columbia first.”
Cowan said the Brain Imaging Center has already created a few jobs and could ultimately create about 50 jobs, although that would take some time.
One such job is the Miller Family Chair in cognitive neuroscience. Cowan said that the center is hoping to fill this position as soon as possible and that the person selected would also be the director of the center.
He also said the center has been a major factor in recruiting quality faculty.
“We wouldn’t have the same researchers without the center because that’s why they came here,” Cowan said. “They are banking their careers on it.”