Research teams at the University of Minnesota and Mayo Clinic will receive nearly $5 million over the next three years in the first batch of grants from the National Institutes of Health's prodigious initiative to map the human brain.
The so-called BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Technologies) initiative, a long-term project that has been likened to the effort behind the United States' first moon landing, will release $46 million toward 58 projects in fiscal 2014 — three of them in Minnesota — NIH director Francis Collins said Tuesday.
The projects aim to develop new technologies for basic neuroscience, generate ways to classify and analyze the brain's 86 billion cells and trillions of connections, and create new ways to record brain circuits, among other goals.
In a blog post Tuesday, Collins highlighted a project at the University of Minnesota's Twin Cities campus as an example of the kind of work that lies ahead. U radiologists Michael Garwood and Thomas Vaughn will receive $393,751 this year as their first installment on a $1.16 million, three-year project designed to show that they can produce high-quality images from a portable magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine that can be worn like a helmet.
Such a device could allow brain imaging for people worldwide who can't travel to high-tech centers, or who can't undergo traditional MRIs because their bodies contain metallic objects. Garwood and Vaughn said the concept of a helmet-sized MRI isn't new, but until now, the devices have produced poor images because small magnets generate irregular energy fields.
Technology invented at the U will make it possible to produce high-quality images from such devices, Garwood said. Once researchers prove that the concept works, he said, they will seek more money to build a prototype.
A World Health Organization report that says that less than 5 percent of the world has access to MRIs, "and that applies doubly so to research," Vaughn said. "This device, really for the first time, will allow us to access the rest of the world."
Garwood said it also would allow researchers to study the brain while subjects are active. MRIs currently constrain their subjects.
Wei Chen, a professor of radiology and biomedical engineering at the U, will get $468,696 this year as part of a $1.3 million, three-year grant to develop MRIs capable of working at the cellular level. He said the goal is high-resolution images of very small areas or very rapid activity in the brain while using less power, thereby increasing patient safety.
NIH also awarded $800,917 toward a $2.5 million, three-year project at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester that seeks to detect the release of neurotransmitters in the living brain using diamond-tipped devices developed at the clinic.
Researchers will use the devices to modulate brain activity, a procedure known as deep brain stimulation.
Mayo already uses the devices to treat tremors, epilepsy, Tourette's syndrome and other conditions, said Dr. Kendall Lee, a neurosurgeon and biomedical engineer who is leading that project.
"One of the key problems with this technology is that the sensor doesn't last very long," Lee said. But Mayo researchers have discovered that a coating of polycrystalline diamond film, when properly doped with boron, produces durable, sensitive sensors.
"As you know, diamond lasts forever," Lee said.
The BRAIN Initiative involves the NIH, the National Science Foundation, the Food and Drug Administration and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). The project is guided by a long-term plan that calls for Congress to appropriate $4.5 billion over 12 years.