UMD Undergraduate Research Journal

Maryland Neuroimaging Center: a new era in neuroscience research

by Poorna Sreekumar

Digram showing medial (left), horizontal (on head), and coronal (right) cross-sections of the brain as returned by the fMRI, with highlighted areas showing areas of neural activity. Image courtesy of NACS.

This year, the University of Maryland has added a new research facility to its already sizable arsenal. The Maryland Neuroimaging Center (MNC) opened over the summer and houses various resources for neuroimaging, the most notable being the new functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) scanner and Magnetoencephalograph (MEG).

A fMRI is a device that allows researchers to measure blood flow in the brain, thereby showing what parts of the brain respond to certain stimuli. The MEG records brain activity directly and with great temporal resolution, yet it doesn't have the spatial resolution of a fMRI.

In addition to the new devices, the University also renovated nearly 8,000 square feet to accommodate the machines and office space needed to cultivate a research atmosphere. The MNC was made possible by a $2 million grant from the National Science Foundation. One of the unique aspects of the MNC is that it combines several different ways of studying the brain. With this combination, researchers can get a comprehensive look at brain functions which will be essential to the field. Unlike other centers for neuroimaging, the MNC will also be exclusively a research environment with very little clinical use. The center has desk space, computers and conference rooms and generally provides an atmosphere to foster discussion about ongoing research.

Robert Dooling, the head of the Neuroscience and Cognitive Science (NACS) department, was one of the two main figures, alongside Professor Nathan Fox, in making the MNC a reality. Dooling recounted that the establishment of the MNC was quite a difficult process, because at the time of the proposal there weren't many researchers on campus using neuroimaging technology. He described it as a chicken and the egg problem - there weren't many researchers using neuroimaging, the need for a center never arose, but, conversely, researchers didn't consider conducting this type of work because there wasn't a neuroimaging center.

Dooling said that the few people that did do full time neuroimaging often did it at other nearby centers such as NIH. However, both Fox and Dooling recognized the emerging need for more advanced and accessible technology for a university of this size. "Interest has grown considerably since the beginning," Dooling said. "And there might be future collaborations with other centers such as the FDA and the Children's Hospital."

Currently, the university has a number of faculty involved in research that makes extensive use of neuroimaging technology, in areas such as child brain development and linguistics. Dooling hopes the creation of a neuroimaging center will attract more top researchers to the university and bolster the reputation of the NACS department.

One such researcher is Tracy Riggins, the head of the Neurocognitive Development Lab (NCDL), who said that the MNC should also prove to be a useful teaching tool. "The MNC has provided more opportunities for faculty not only for individual research but also for collaborative research, multiple levels of brain analysis and even training for undergraduates. It's a center for both research and education," Riggins said. Before the creation of the MNC, Riggins, whose research focuses on the neural bases of cognitive development, collected data using an electroencephalograph (EEG) machine located inside the NCDL. However, with the opening of the MNC, Riggins is looking forward to gaining a more in-depth view of cognitive development by collaborating further with other researchers.

Currently, Riggins and Elizabeth Redcay of Developmental Social Cognitive Neuroscience Lab are conducting some pilot research about memory in adults. The research, which involves measuring resting state functional connectivity and comparing these measures to performances on memory tasks, would have been impossible to conduct without the resources provided by the MNC. "Before the MNC, we were limited in what questions we could ask, we couldn't ask anything about specific brain structures. But now, the fMRI allows us to ask a whole other set of questions," she said.

While Riggins has been conducting some studies involving fMRI data at the National Institute for Drug Abuse, it had been restricted to studies involving only drug abuse. Besides allowing her to conduct other sorts of research, the fMRI at the MNC adds another component to the EEG data that the NCDL lab usually collects. The EEG data only shows temporal resolution and doesn't necessarily answer where in the brain processes are occurring. The fMRI on the other hand, shows what brain structures are involved in certain processes, and in the context of Riggins' research, which structures play a role in memory.

As Dooling said, "The center isn't just a place to take data as most clinical centers are. It's really set up for research and it provides a convenient and unique way to analyze brain structure and function."