University of Minnesota’s CMRR receives $6.9 million grant to continue brain connectivity research

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Monday, August 15, 2016

Researchers at the University of Minnesota’s Center for Magnetic Resonance Research (CMRR) were awarded a $6.9 million grant to continue their research to map human brain connectivity as it relates to aging and development as part of the Lifespan Human Connectome Project (LHCP). The $3.6 million aging grant will investigate the structural and functional changes that occur in the brain during typical aging. The $3.3 million development grant will map the development of brain structure and function from early childhood into adulthood. Both projects will use sophisticated, non-invasive magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanning.

This grant is part of a larger grant awarded to a consortium composed of four institutions: University of Minnesota, Washington University in St. Louis, University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), and Harvard University. The four institutions will collect similar data to generate a large publically available database using imaging techniques developed at CMRR.

Nearly five years ago, Washington University in St. Louis and the University of Minnesota (CMRR) consortium was awarded the National Institutes of Health (NIH)  grant for Human Connectome Project (HCP), with David Van Essen, Ph.D., from Washington University and Kamil Ugurbil, Ph.D., from CMRR as the co-principle Investigators. This consortium also included researchers from Oxford University as a major participant. In this effort, CMRR was responsible for the  technical developments for image acquisition and the collection of the most advanced data sets. The NIH considers the HCP a tremendous success and the work CMRR did in this effort established the technological foundations for the new grants to be possible.

“CMRR is a world leader in high field imaging and neuroimaging aimed at mapping activity in the human brain and due to our experience and technological capabilities we were able to be a part of the Human Connectome Project,” said Kamil Ugurbil, Ph.D., co-principal investigator, professor of radiology, and director of the CMRR. “The mapping techniques we created in the HCP are truly transformative allowing us to better understand how the brain is organized and connected. With these new techniques, we are now in a position to ask about how the brain develops and changes over time, and how it is altered in diseases.”

The aging and development research will utilize a high end clinical FDA approved 3 Tesla (3T) MRI scanner, which was developed and inspired by the original HCP research in collaboration with Siemens.

The aging project led by Ugurbil and Melissa Terpstra, Ph.D., co-principal investigator and associate professor of radiology in CMRR, will extensively characterize several factors that influence cognitive functionality alongside the comprehensive mapping of brain connectivity. Risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease will be tracked, as will key aspects of socioeconomic and health status. Emphasis will be placed on investigation of the cognitive symptoms associated with perimenopause.

“This new funding will also allow us to contextualize age and region specific patterns of brain biochemistry with structural and functional changes that occur in the brain during typical aging,” said Terpstra. “It will substantially expand research on aging of the living human brain at the University of Minnesota.”

In this project Ugurbil and Terpstra will follow individual adults as they grow older and relate changes in systemic health and metabolism to changes in how the brain is organized.

The development project led by Essa Yacoub, Ph.D., professor of radiology, and Kathleen Thomas, Ph.D., professor in the Institute of Child Development, will be the first to cover the entire age range from 5-21 years to explore the physical changes of the brain but also the changes in functional brain networks across its development.

“Developmental psychologists have long been fascinated by the wide range of functions and skills that develop across childhood and adolescence, and have been actively researching the brain systems that support these behavioral changes for many years,” said Thomas. “However, this project will be the first large-scale multi-site national study to map out brain changes across this entire age span.”

In this project, Yacoub and Thomas will have the opportunity to follow individual children as they move through the early years of puberty to relate the changes in pubescent hormones to changes in behavior, mood and the brain.

Utilizing the technical advances from the HCP, specifically through MRI, will allow researchers to examine structural and functional brain networks in greater detail. Additionally, they will be able to measure several aspects of the child’s life including family environments and friends, schools and communities, physical and mental health, thinking and decision-making skills, and behavioral and emotional regulation.

These studies will involve a diverse sampling of individuals from many communities and backgrounds.

Data collected from this research will be made available to anyone that wants it so that researchers can work together to achieve the greatest possible improvements in human health.

For more information about participating in the research please visit https://www.cmrr.umn.edu/research2016/category_lhcp.php.