University of Minnesota poised for major role in Obama brain initiative

  • Article by: DAN BROWNING , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 30, 2013 - 11:29 PM

Sen. Amy Klobuchar on Tuesday urged researchers at the university to show how expenditures on science will save costs and save lives.

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Dr. Kamil Ugurbil, left, gave Sen. Amy Klobuchar a tour of the Center for Magnetic Resonance Research Center at the U of M.

Photo: Elizabeth Flores • eflores@startribune.com ,

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The University of Minnesota will be at the forefront of a stunningly ambitious federal initiative to map the human brain.

The director of the U’s Center for Magnetic Resonance Research stood in the wings at a recent news conference in Washington, D.C., as President Obama announced that the government would spend $100 million in seed money to launch the complex, multiyear project.

Kamil Ugurbil didn’t get a chance to speak with the president that day. But he and 14 other scientists from around the country will be sharing their recommendations for the initiative with the administration, complete with scientific goals, timetables, milestones and cost estimates. On Sunday, the scientists will meet in person for the first time.

On Tuesday, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., jumped ahead of the game and called a roundtable meeting at the U with Ugurbil and representatives of foundations that raise money for research into epilepsy, autism and Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.

More than 150 people, including some of the top researchers in their fields, crammed into a classroom for a briefing on the National Institutes of Health’s BRAIN Initiative, short for Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies.

It’s a daunting task. The human brain is made up of tens of billions of neurons. The U will participate in the initiative because it has designed and built the world’s most powerful magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) devices, which allow researchers to peer inside the human body with greater and greater resolution.

“We push the envelope,” Ugurbil said.

Magnetic power is measured on a linear scale known as teslas. Most hospital MRIs are 1.5-tesla devices, though some have 3-tesla MRIs that render images in greater detail. The U has two 7-tesla MRIs, and is awaiting arrival of the world’s first 10.5-tesla device.

Its 130,000-pound magnet will produce energy through superconducting wires that must be cooled to near absolute-0 with about 40,000 liters of liquid helium. A worldwide helium shortage has stalled its delivery.

Ugurbil, a 63-year-old Turkish immigrant, earned a doctorate in chemical physics from Columbia University. He moved to the U in 1982 and launched its MRI and spectroscopy research effort, which led to the creation of the Center for Magnetic Resonance Research. He’s also co-director of the international Human Connectome Project, a $30 million, five-year effort to develop technologies and a database that can be used to study neural connections in the brain.

“One can look at the BRAIN Initiative as resting on some of the early successes of the Human Connectome Project,” Ugurbil said. But the BRAIN Initiative is magnitudes greater in scope and will rely on Congress to fund research through normal channels going forward, he said.

Spending now to save later?

Klobuchar has an abiding interest in research that may lead to treatment for neurodegenerative diseases. But her curiosity nearly got the best of her on a brief tour of the U’s research center.

Ugurbil quickly grabbed Klobuchar’s shoulder as she started to enter a room for a closer look at one of the MRIs. He explained that if she’d gone any farther, their magnets might have destroyed her watch or sucked up any loose metal such as jewelry or paper clips, causing major headaches for researchers.

“I might still be on that equipment if you hadn’t stopped me from going in the room,” Klobuchar quipped as she opened the discussion.

One in six people worldwide have a neurological disease; 6.8 million die from them each year, she said. The disorders cost the United States about $137 billion a year, not counting the toll on caregivers, and the cost is projected to rise to $1 trillion by 2050, she said.

The U has a “deep bench” in the neurosciences, said Dr. Timothy Ebner, who heads that department. But he said the researchers don’t always get the financial support they need and asked Klobuchar how to change that.

Klobuchar urged the researchers to link arms with foundations and seniors groups to lobby for funding. It’s important to show how the research can lead to treatments that save money, she said.

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