The Wolfson Brain Imaging Centre in the University of Cambridge has been equipped with a set of the most powerful magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and positron emission tomography (PET) scanners in the world. Cambridge will be counted among a small handful of institutions to have any of the advanced scanners, and the only one to have all three. The devices are at the heart of a refurbishment of the center funded by the Medical Research Council, Wellcome Trust and Cancer Research UK.

Cambridge’s head of neuroscience, Professor Ed Bullmore commented “It is a remarkable set of machines. We will be able to address clinical issues such as the detailed progression of Parkinson’s disease. At the same time, we will be able to address basic issues about the mind. How does the brain develop? How does the adult brain perform its functions?”

The advanced machinery includes a Siemens 7T Terra MRI scanner, a GE Healthcare PET/MR scanner, and a device called a hyperpolariser. The MRI scanner allows imaging of tiny details in the brain, as small as a grain of sand. The PET/MR scanner uses positron emission combined with magnetic resonance imaging, allowing scientists to gain a better understanding of how cancers spread and respond to treatment. It will also allow a more detailed study of how dementia progresses. Finally, the hyperpolariser allows doctors to study metabolic changes in tissues and cancers in real time, to determine whether a given treatment is effective.

“The devices we have assembled are primarily for studying humans and will have a strong research focus,” according to Bullmore.

As a point of reference for the power of these new devices, current MRI scanners have magnetic fields with a strength of about 3T (tesla), able to image structures 2 or 3 millimeters in size. The new Cambridge scanner offers a 7T field, and a resolution of 0.5 millimeters.

Bullmore explains:

“That is a very important difference. The outer layer of the brain, the cortex, is about 3-4mm thick. That is the grey matter that provides us with our thoughts. Current scanners show it as a single strip. The new 7T device will allow us to differentiate the cortex so we will be able to see its different structures and allow us to understand how they interact. We are going to learn how the brain works as a network.”

Together, these devices will allow scientists to gain a much more detailed understanding of the way cancer and conditions, such as dementia progress. It will not only enhance the treatment of individual patients, but open the door to a new understanding of how these conditions work, and how they respond to a variety of treatments.

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