MRI Facility Opening New Avenues of Research

Story by Brian Wallheimer, photo by Charles Jischke

Sebastien Hélie wants to know what’s happening in a student’s brain when he or she really “gets it,” and just how educators can replicate that time and again.

He believes that when a lesson is taught in two different ways — one in which the learner can pass a simple test on the information, and another in which the learner can apply the lesson in other situations — different parts of the brain will be in play.

“We hope that we can look at a learner and how his or her brain is processing information,” says Hélie, an associate professor of psychological sciences at Purdue University. “If you see your teaching method activates the wrong brain patterns, you can change how you teach.”

Hélie monitors brain activity through functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, and he waited 18 months to start his research project so that he could take advantage of Purdue’s new Life Science MRI Facility, which came into being last fall with the purchase of the 3T Siemens MAGNETOM Prisma scanner. Before that, Hélie and others were using an MRI off campus, contracted with a private radiology center to be used by Purdue during evening and weekend hours.

"For the first time, we’re able to measure this in the whole brain instead of just one single brain region. This technology opens possibilities that we have never had before.” -Ulrike Dydak, Director of the Purdue Life Science MRI Facility

The facility houses two MRI machines that focus on human science research for the College of Health and Human Sciences and the College of Engineering. The College of Health and Human Sciences received a $2 million grant to support the project.

The new facility, Hélie and others say, has improved not only their hours but also the quality of the data they can collect. The MRI facility also was able to hire Debra Patterson, who works with the faculty as a half-time magnetic resonance technologist and assists every study.

Purdue’s new MRI has around three times better spatial resolution. And it’s faster, taking a full brain measurement every 720 milliseconds, rather than one every 2 seconds.

“Your brain does a lot in a second, and in 2 seconds, it does almost everything,” Hélie says. “If I can see your brain only every 2 seconds, I might miss things.”

Heather Leidy, an associate professor of nutrition science, has used the new scanner to expand research into how breakfast affects food cravings later in the day in teens. She scans the neural activity of subjects who have eaten and subjects who have skipped breakfast to compare the portions of the brains associated with cravings.

Leidy’s research has shown that even after breakfast-skippers do finally eat a meal at lunch, their craving centers are more active later in the day than those who started the day with breakfast. Breakfast eaters crave even less if their breakfast is high in protein.

“It debunks the idea that breakfast is not ‘the most important meal of the day,’” Leidy said. “It tells us that breakfast has a long-lasting effect on eating behavior later in the day.”

Because the Life Science MRI Facility is available any day, any time, Leidy is able to run scans on weekends, early mornings and in the evening.

Now Leidy is testing these breakfast effects over the long-term in teens who habitually skip breakfast. She is also trying to see if there are differences in the effect among types of protein, such as plant-based vs. animal-based.

Another diet-based study is exploring how diet affects sodium retention in muscle, skin and bones. The project, led by Connie Weaver, Distinguished Professor of Nutrition Science, has implications for understanding how diets can lead to different blood pressure issues in children of different races.

“This is totally novel,” says Ulrike Dydak, director of the Purdue Life Science MRI Facility. “We hadn’t been able to do any sodium imaging at Purdue at all before the new MRI facility became available.”

That’s because most scanners can only detect hydrogen nuclei. Detecting other elements requires special coils for the scanner, which the Purdue Life Science MRI facility has.

Dydak, herself, who is an associate professor of health sciences, has several studies made possible by the new state-of-the-art technology, specifically looking at the connection between GABA, which is a neurotransmitter, and cognitive function.

She is collaborating with Brandon Keehn, an assistant professor of speech, language, and hearing sciences, on a study of GABA levels in autistic children who excel in visual search speed and efficiency. Dydak also is looking at GABA concentration in welders who are exposed to high levels of heavy metals such as manganese.

The new scanner has software capable of visualizing GABA in the entire brain. The scanner Purdue researchers used to contract with may have been capable of a similar scan, but Dydak said it would have taken years to develop software to do so — a costly endeavor.

“For the first time, we’re able to measure this in the whole brain instead of just one single brain region,” Dydak says. “This technology opens possibilities that we have never had before.”

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