Upgrade to MRI scanner enhances researchers’ view of the human brain

By Jonathan McVerry
January 05, 2015

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- With a recent upgrade to the 3-Tesla (3-T) magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner, Penn State will soon have one of the most technologically advanced scanners in the country. The upgrade will give researchers access to a clearer and more detailed picture of the human brain and its functions as well as other bodily structures.

Penn State’s upgraded Siemens Prisma Fit is a 13-ton, 3-T MRI scanner located in the Social, Life and Engineering Sciences Imaging Center (SLEIC) in Chandlee Lab. With special funding from the Office of the Vice President for Research, the upgrade provides Penn State researchers with a state-of-the-art tool to acquire high-quality images at incredibly high speeds.

“There are many scientists at Penn State who study the brain. Normally, we want to scan the entire brain. On the old 3-T machine, we could try for a more detailed look by obtaining thin slices of the brain, but the scans would take a very long time,” said Michele Diaz, director of human imaging and associate professor of psychology. “Speed is really an issue because it influences your sampling rate, and the Prisma Fit expands the research capabilities of most investigators just by acquiring detailed images faster.”

The 3-T upgrade, the first since the scanner was installed in 2009, features new software and hardware, including improved gradients, which is the force from 2,000-pound coils that provide spatial encoding and let researchers know where signals are coming from. When trying to track signals in the brain, any movement of the head or any general vibrations can negatively affect the scan. These disturbances, called “noise,” reduce the clarity and quality of the scan. The faster the scan, however, the less the noise will affect the results. In this way, the new coils allow for higher “signal-to-noise” ratios, which Diaz said is what makes this upgrade so important.

“Now, we will get the same image that we used to in nearly half the time,” Diaz said. The scanning process can sometimes take an hour when participants perform a range of tasks while their brains are being scanned. Cutting scanning time in half is beneficial for both the researcher and the study participant who must lie perfectly still inside a 60-centimeter scanning area.

Because the brain operates at such a great speed, the faster a scanner collects information, the better scientists can understand how the brain works. At Penn State, some neuroscientists seek to determine what areas of the brain activate when a tobacco smoker chooses to smoke so that interventions can be developed to help smokers quit. Other behavioral scientists interested in the role of the brain study how humans learn and understand language. For example, these investigators assess when and where the brain activates when a bilingual person switches between languages.

Kristina Neely, assistant professor of kinesiology, studies the neural control of movement, specifically how the central nervous system produces bodily forces. “For research like mine, the upgrades translate to better data, faster,” she said. “The hardware and software upgrades improve data quality and ultimately, our science.”

Most research at the SLEIC focuses on the brain, but the 3-T MRI is a whole-body scanner and has the capability to scan both humans and animals. This versatility opens the door for faculty members from around the University to address a range of questions about physiology and behavior. Psychologists, nutrition scientists, psycholinguists, bio-mechanists and engineers use the 3-T MRI technology for their research.

“This new support for the SLEIC shows the University’s commitment to our science,” Neely said. “We have faculty members who are excited about the possibilities the new scanner presents and eager to continue doing great research. Penn State is a great environment to be working in.”

Investigators interested in learning about imaging or the new MRI scanner should contact Diaz at mtd143@psu.edu. SLEIC is supported by the Social Science Research Institute; Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences; the colleges of Education, Health and Human Development, and the Liberal Arts; and the offices of the Executive Vice President and Provost, and Vice President for Research

  • Penn State's 3T scanner gets an upgrade.

    Penn State’s upgraded Siemens Prisma Fit is a 13-ton 3-T MRI scanner located in the Social, Life, and Engineering Sciences Imaging Center (SLEIC) in Chandlee Lab on the University Park campus.

Last Updated January 05, 2015