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A powerful look into the body

April 2003

by Will Sansom

A machine 70,000 times more powerful than the earthís magnetic field enables doctors to see the human body as never before.

The Health Science Centerís world-renowned Research Imaging Center (RIC) soon will obtain a $2.6 million, high-field magnetic resonance imaging system to continue its preeminent work. RIC faculty members have generated more than 100 publications in the leading peer-reviewed journals in the field. The findings have implications for stuttering, epilepsy, depression, memory, learning, appetite and involuntary functions.

The Research Imaging Center captured a highly competitive $1.6 million equipment grant from the National Center for Research Resources of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). "This new state-of-the-art scanner will keep us at the top of research in this field," said Jia-Hong Gao, Ph.D., principal investigator on the NIH grant. Dr. Gao is associate professor and chief of the MRI division at the RIC.

In addition to NIH funds, a special appropriation from Congress to the Texas Diabetes Institute is providing $1 million toward the purchase of the new MRI scanner. Announcing the support were Ralph A. DeFronzo, M.D., Health Science Center professor of medicine and deputy director of the Texas Diabetes Institute, and Theresa De La Haya, University Health System vice president of the diabetes institute. Health Science Center physicians see patients and conduct research studies at the institute, which is a facility of the University Health System.

The University of Texas System Board of Regents unanimously approved the purchase of the new system, which is 3 Tesla in strength. "This machine will be 70,000 times more powerful than the earthís magnetic field," Dr. Gao said. "This is the highest magnetic field strength approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for clinical scans, although ours will be used primarily for research."

RIC faculty will use the new MRI scanner to further their studies of brain function. "It will provide the RIC with the capability to obtain diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) and high-resolution in vivo proton spectroscopy, which we are lacking in our present system," Dr. Gao said. "DTI is an essential technique for studying cerebral functional connectivity and white matter diseases. The advanced technology accompanying this system will help increase the speed of image acquisition, which will significantly reduce the scan time for each subject. This will make subjects more comfortable and potentially reduce the cost of MRI exams."

White matter diseases include multiple sclerosis. White matter is the part of the brain that contains the nerve fibers of the central nervous system. Interestingly, it even appears white in common magnetic resonance images. Normal white matter is essential for the proper transportation of signals from place to place within the brain and to nerves of the peripheral nervous system.

The new system will provide high-quality anatomical images of the human body, but researchers are perhaps more excited about its high sensitivity for detecting brain function and measuring oxygen metabolism. "Advances in our understanding of human cognitive functions, such as language, memory, motor learning, reasoning and attention, will be achieved," Dr. Gao said.

Texas Diabetes Institute researchers will use the device to study heart/circulation abnormalities and metabolic defects in liver and muscle in diabetic patients. "Insulin resistance and uncontrolled high blood sugar have very damaging effects on the heart, the blood vessels, the liver and the muscles," Dr. DeFronzo said. With the delivery of the high-field MRI system, Dr. DeFronzo and his co-workers will be able to quantitate the severity of atherosclerosis in major arteries (including the carotids, the aorta and coronary arteries) and non-invasively track the resolution of the atherosclerosis following drug therapy. Atherosclerosis is commonly known as hardening of the arteries.

The new machine also will allow the investigators to look within the muscle and liver cells to define specific defects in glucose metabolism that are responsible for the increase in blood glucose (sugar) levels in diabetic patients. Delineation of these intracellular defects in glucose metabolism will lead to the development of more effective medications for the treatment of Type 2 diabetic patients.

Peter T. Fox, M.D., director of the RIC and the Imaging Core of the Frederic Bartter General Clinical Research Center, said: "The high-field MRI makes an outstanding addition to the capabilities of the Research Imaging Center and the Imaging Core. Although funding was obtained by the RIC and the Texas Diabetes Institute, researchers from any fields can apply for access via the General Clinical Research Center." The General Clinical Research Center is a collaboration of the Health Science Center, the South Texas Veterans Health Care System and theNIH.


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