The University of Alabama has opened its new 9,700-square-foot, $10 million MRI research facility, an addition to the university’s medical center. This move is a major step forward in supporting the University’s capacity to undertake research across a range of academic disciplines.
The centerpiece of the addition to the University Medical Center complex at Fifth Avenue and Fourth Street is a state-of-the-art magnetic resonance imaging machine. The unit is roughly twice as powerful as MRIs commonly used in clinical settings.
Sharlene Newman, executive director of the Alabama Life Research Institute, said, “It has a higher magnetic field strength and is the most widely used type of MRI for research in the world.”
The unit has a 3 Tesla rating, which is a number that describes the strength of the magnetic field that the machine creates. A 3 Tesla machine can work faster at the same resolution as a 1.5 Tesla machine and can produce higher resolution images with less noise so researchers can see more detail.
“Most of the research, at least initially, will be focused on neuroscience. Most of us who use the MRI scanner are currently studying the brain. We have faculty from across campus studying everything from educational neuroscience to substance abuse to autism to aging and dementia ,” Newman said.
The university is also adding a new undergraduate major in neuroscience, which Newman said was recently approved by UA administrators.
The new MRI facility also opens the door to studying people from West Alabama, a population group that Newman says is drastically understudied. She said West Alabama children face a range of developmental issues, from lead paint poisoning to environmental stressors. The researchers hope to better understand these challenges with the new MRI device.
“We are sitting in a ‘dead zone’. We have a high percentage of everything. We want to understand the impact of the environment here, including diet and specific environmental stressors on the brain,” Newman said.
Rajesh Kana, director of the neuroscience team at the Alabama Life Research Institute, said the machine could be used in innovative ways to help researchers understand the brain.
“You can look at the structure of the brain, how the different parts of the brain are organized, you can look at the wiring in the brain. You can also look at how the brain responds to a task, like doing a math problem or reading a sentence or tracking movement. You can to see what part of your brain is responding or not responding,” Kana said.
The new MRI facility will also be part of a national network of 25 sites that all study brain development in a program known as the Healthy Brain and Child Development Study. The program accepts pregnant women in their second trimester and will follow the child up to 10 years of age to help find answers to questions about brain development.
Researcher Lea Yerby, an associate professor in the Department of Community Medicine and Population Health, said: “We also look for resilience factors. If we find that there is stress or exposure to things that could negatively affect a child’s brain development, yet the child has positive brain development, that helped them to these positive results?”
This is a great benefit for people who are participating in long-term studies. Newman said if they find an abnormality during the scan, the family will be notified and the researchers will direct the information to their health care provider so they can receive treatment.
While the university focuses on brain research, Newman foresees clinical applications in the future. Alabama Life Research Institute is already working with sports medicine doctors who can use the device for diagnostic work. MRI is a full-body scanner and is not limited to brain research.
Russell Mumper, vice president for research and economic development at the University of Alabama, said the new MRI research facility enhances the UA’s reputation as a research university that has been the focus of the university’s growth and development in recent years.
“This facility has been three years in the making. The proposal to build the facility came from six different colleges on campus,” Mumper said. “It really has two important roles. One is to facilitate important research. Because we never had a facility like this on campus, the faculty that did it had to go off campus. Now we’re able to hire faculty because of this facility.” The second thing that was a really compelling reason for this is that multiple undergraduate and graduate degree programs will benefit from this facility.”
The UA spent nearly $10 million on the new facility, and Mumper said the investment is part of a larger strategy to strengthen the university’s research efforts. UA was designated an R1, or Very High Doctoral Research University, by the Carnegie Foundation in 2018. Mumper said the new facility is an important part of the university’s growing reputation for research. The new facility was built with room to add a second MRI machine in the future.
“We’ve doubled the size of the research business in the last four years. We’re certainly one of the fastest growing businesses in the United States,” Mumper said.