UArizona Among First in U.S. to Get New MRI System Producing Better Brain Images

Thanks to an equipment grant from the National Institutes of Health, the University of Arizona will be among the first institutions in the country to receive a new MRI system that can produce clearer and more comprehensive images of the brain.

By Emily Dieckman, College of Engineering

The National Institutes of Health has awarded University of Arizona researchers a $2 million High-End Instrumentation grant to help purchase an advanced 3Tesla MRI instrument for studying the human brain. The university will be among the first institutions in the country to receive the new model, which is manufactured by Siemens Healthineers. 

These NIH grants are highly competitive and fund the purchase of a biomedical research instrument worth up to $2 million, rather than a specific research project. Eighteen UArizona investigators working on nearly two dozen projects already have plans for how to use the instrument.

The system, scheduled for delivery in fall 2023, will have advanced hardware that can produce clearer and more comprehensive images of the brain with greater speed.

“The new instrument will be the most powerful FDA-approved 3T MRI instrument in the world, allowing researchers to obtain the most detailed images possible,” said Ted Trouard, professor emeritus of biomedical engineering in the College of Engineering, professor of medical imaging in the College of Medicine – Tucson and principal investigator on the grant. “It will dramatically enhance current research projects and enable new research directions and discoveries.”

MRI machines have become essential in brain science research because they provide a noninvasive, safe way to obtain detailed images of the brain. But there is currently only one MRI facility on the UArizona campus dedicated solely to research, and it’s booked for use every day from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.

So, in addition to allowing for faster scanning, higher resolution and higher fidelity, the new MRI machine will help research teams in fields including health sciences, psychology and engineering expedite their research. 

“That’s just the immediate impact,” said Trouard, also a professor at the BIO5 Institute and the Evelyn F. McKnight Brain Institute. “For the next decade, we’ll be at the very forefront of MRI development.”

Trouard developed the grant proposal in collaboration with the BIO5 Institute.

“BIO5 is excited and proud to support the acquisition of this new MRI instrument,” said Jennifer Barton, director of BIO5 and professor of biomedical engineering. “Our cohort of neuroimaging faculty from across the University of Arizona are world renowned for their innovations in MRI image acquisition. This machine will enable them to create new knowledge and diagnostics, as well as help develop therapies for neurological and cognitive disorders.”

The university’s Office for Research, Innovation and Impact is contributing $1.14 million to help cover the remaining cost of the $3.14 MRI system. RII has also constructed the specialized laboratory space required for the new system and hired a neuroimage analysis scientist to assist new users.    

“We are thrilled to receive this significant grant from the National Institutes of Health, which underscores our commitment to advancing groundbreaking research in brain science,” said Elizabeth “Betsy” Cantwell, senior vice president for research and innovation. “This state-of-the-art MRI machine positions our researchers to make remarkable strides in understanding neurological functioning and accelerates our ability to have transformative impact across disciplines including health sciences, psychology and engineering.”

Psychology, medical imaging, biomedical engineering

The instrument will be located in the Translational Bioimaging Resource, a new 20,000-square-foot facility in the Biosciences Research Laboratories building. There, it can be used by researchers across campus to improve understanding of brain functions ranging from memory to sleep to empathy, as well as diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.  

“For many of the faculty in psychology, it will change the basic research questions we can ask and significantly increase the quality of the data we collect,” said Lee Ryan, head of the psychology department and associate director of the Evelyn F. McKnight Brain Institute. “MRI has been critical for understanding the neural mechanisms of memory, language and spatial navigation, how the brain changes with age, and how therapeutic interventions affect brain structure and function. We are all excited to see where this new MRI system takes us.”

Faculty members including Nan-kuei Chen, an associate professor of biomedical engineering, and Maria Altbach, a professor of medical imaging and biomedical engineering, said they look forward to how the newest generation in imaging technology will impact their work in advancing MRI technology.

“This prestigious grant has been years in the making, with teams across campus dedicating the time, space and other resources to make it happen,” said University of Arizona President Robert C. Robbins. “We are proud to have had an active and continuous MRI research program at the University of Arizona for nearly three decades. I look forward to seeing how this cutting-edge technology will allow our outstanding researchers to advance their work even further.”

Pictured above – Ted Trouard, professor emeritus of biomedical engineering and professor of medical imaging, with the university's current MRI instrument. The new 3Tesla instrument will have advanced hardware that can produce clearer and more comprehensive images of the brain with greater speed.Zoe Lambert/Department of Biomedical Engineering
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