Researchers in the radiology department at the University of Wisconsin are some of the first to use a new MRI that images the brain’s tiny crossing fibers and white matter like never before

Dr. Alan McMillan and Dr. Samuel Hurley, researchers in the Department of Radiology at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, spend much of their brain power studying other brains.

They are two of many across the globe rapidly conducting neurological research similar to the Human Connectome Project, a project to construct a map of the complete structural and functional neural connections in the brain.

These researchers have made tremendous progress despite the challenges: the human brain is made up of 100 billion neurons, its wiring filled with crossing pathways and white matter.

“That wiring is not neat and organized. It’s very complex and has lots of crossing pathways,” said Dr. Hurley. “So to be able to get an accurate picture of how brain regions talk to each other and how they’re wired together, we need to be able to see those crossing fibers and where these connections are going.”

It’s why researchers and radiologists have been eagerly waiting for the ability to capture an accurate picture of the brain that visualizes the tiniest details of these crossing fibers and the white matter, so they can better understand and help treat disease and injury. To date, for example, there is no conclusive test to diagnose Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI).

Now their wait may have ended.

This image, taken on the SIGNA Premier, shows the fiber tracks of the brain, otherwise known as tractography. Image courtesy of Alan McMillan, PhD, Wisconsin Institutes for Medical Research, Department of Radiology, University of Wisconsin – Madison.

As part of their efforts, the researchers in the radiology department at the University of Wisconsin are some of the first to use a new MRI scanner that images the brain like never before, including the tiny crossing fibers and white matter.

Like research for the Human Connectome Project, the SIGNA Premier, an ultra-premium 3.0T MR system, is the result of a collaboration between GE Healthcare and research institutions around the world.

Using the new technology, Dr. Hurley’s research has been able to measure the physical connections between brain regions, where white matter acts like wiring that connects the different regions of the brain together, then connect the brain to the body through the spinal cord.

“We’re getting a much more realistic view of how the brain connections are wired together and it’s enabling us to noninvasively measure the brain,” he says. “We’re pushing the imaging technology where we can get a map of the brain connections and a map of the brain wiring that appears to be the most accurate we’ve seen to date.”

Their goal is to help develop quantitative MRI methods that measure white matter in the brain throughout disease progression.

“So far we’ve been really pleased,” Dr. Hurley said. “We can set up the MR protocols we need and run them through existing Human Connectome Project image analysis pipelines. And we’re getting results that look as good or better than images we’ve seen previously.”

The technology is said to be so powerful that it is also making an impact in scanning the body.

Another member of the team, Dr. Scott Reeder, professor, Vice Chair of Research, and Chief of MRI at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has been using SIGNA Premier in his research on oncology and liver disease.

This is key because it also features an industry-first light-weight coil that lays like a blanket on the patient – an innovative take on the traditionally bulky, heavy and rigid coil laid used in the MRI scanner.  AIR Technology, a new suite of RF coils that enables total freedom in coil positioning and handling during a MRI scan, is 60 percent lighter benefiting both patients and technologists compared to traditional coils, and fits 99.9 percent of patients.

Secrets of the MRI that images the human brain like never before

The first images from a new MRI that images the brain (and body) like never before – tiny crossing pathways, white matter and all – were shown for the first time on Lab Invaders Episode 3, a series live on Facebook, when the engineers took a camera inside the lab at GE Healthcare to show a behind the scenes look at how they made this invention a reality. They even scanned one of their own brains!

From a new SuperG gradient to Air Technology, this is how they did it. Watch the short episode here:

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