The Future of Brain Research Has Arrived at Temple’s College of Liberal Arts
by Nick Santangelo and Joseph Master
Every year or two, most people buy a new cell phone. Every six years or so, they buy a new car. Why? Not just because the new model is, well, new, but because it’s a little bit faster, a little bit more powerful. Maybe the battery or gas mileage even gets you a little bit farther.
It’s not so different for Dr. Jason Chein and his research team as they prepare to open the brand new Temple University Brain Research and Image Center (TUBRIC) and its cutting-edge scanner, known as an fMRI machine, this month. The 3-Tesla Siemens MAGNETOM Prisma scanner at the heart of TUBRIC is a state-of-the-art human imaging device that will allow the College of Liberal Arts’ professors and students to perform exciting new brain imaging research projects.
What’s so special about the new scanner? To explain, Dr. Chein likens it to buying that new car with improved gas mileage.
“The new scanner is a standard MRI in that it provides the same types of images that any other one would provide. But it does so with greater precision and speed than its predecessors do,” he says. “Those sound like two random dimensions, but think about a car and what you can do when you have more fuel economy, and now think about what you can do with a car that will take you further on a single load of gasoline. It will take you much, much farther, and it kind of works the same way with the scanner.”
The reason that’s so important is obvious to anyone who’s ever had to endure an MRI scan – it’s not exactly a leisure experience. You lay down on a bed that slides inside the machine’s small, circular opening and stay there for however long the scanning takes. For anyone who’s claustrophobic, anxious or just plain restless, you want to get in and get out as quickly as possible.
But whether you’re in there to be diagnosed or researched, the team on the other end of the scanner needs to acquire a certain data set showing the wiring of your brain at a precise resolution. With older scanners, this can take serious time. But with TUBRIC’s new 3-Tesla model, that time is drastically reduced.
“What would have taken an hour to acquire a certain data set, we can now do in 20 minutes, so think about the impact on subjects as they come in,” says Dr. Chein.
But the new magnet doesn’t just work faster. It also works better. In a feature Dr. Chein compares to moving from an HDTV to a UHDTV, TUBRIC researchers will now be able to see a much finer grain of detail when looking at brain structure or activity. They’ll even be able to find the data they’re looking for by zooming in on the scanner’s images. Specifically, the scanner has about twice the gradient strength of older models, which allows investigators to either capture more spatially precise images or to capture images faster.
Finally, the new scanner also has a more advanced “head coil,” a device that’s placed around the patient or subject’s head before he or she is moved into the scanner. Here, too, the new machine has more power. Where the College’s old scanner had 12 unique wires to pick up and triangulate information, this new one has 40.
“Why all this matters is that we’re trying to study what happens in the brain, and every unique location in the brain is associated with something interesting to us. It’s either some function that it has or some anatomical form or some pattern of connectivity to other areas. So, the better we can describe the particular qualities of those tissues, the better we can apply that to the questions we’re asking.”
Just like an MRI machine, the College’s new fMRI is essentially a giant magnet producing detailed images of tissue inside the human body. A series of images capture changes in the brain’s blood flow over time to reveal how the brain is changing as it performs certain tasks. But while the fMRI machine is TUBRIC’s centerpiece, scanning brain images with the machine is just one of the methods researchers will use to understand how the brain functions.
“In my lab, we combine behavioral experiments with brain imaging techniques to explore and characterize the core mental functions that contribute to the broader landscape of cognitive performance,” explains Dr. Chein. “We tackle this problem by probing how these abilities change with development and experience and by examining the shared and unique brain correlations of different mentally engaging tasks.”
TUBRIC will eventually serve as a core research facility for investigative teams from the College’s Psychology, Political Science, Criminal Justice and other departments. Not stopping at just College of Liberal Arts applications, Dr. Chein also wants to make TUBRIC available to researchers at the College of Public Health's Departments of Communication Sciences and Disorders and Physical Therapy as well as the Fox School of Business’ Department of Marketing & Supply Chain Management.
For now, though, Dr. Chein has a number of studies on his own plate that will be aided by the fMRI machine’s advanced capabilities. One in particular explores how increased smartphone and social media usage affects and potentially changes the brain. The study won’t conclude until after its current theories are tested through data gathered from the new magnet, but the preliminary evidence offers an interesting view into what could potentially be causing so many of us to compulsively check our phones for the latest update.
“What those early findings show is the degree to which someone becomes invested in their smartphone is first of all explainable through how likely they are to need to satisfy an immediate reward – the inability to delay their gratification,” says Dr. Chein. “That, it turns out is related to a particular pathway in the brain that leads up to regions that predict the value of reward to you. And so people who look like they’re becoming more attached to their smartphones are also individuals who have a, relative to others, stronger connection between a part of the brain that signals the presence of a reward and that interprets to you the value of that reward.”
More Student Involvement
And while groundbreaking faculty research will be a core TUBRIC function, the Center and the magnet will also be made available to undergraduate and graduate students during their studies. Students “will have the opportunity to learn the practical skills needed in order to conduct neuroimaging research and in some cases, will be able to pursue independent research directions of their own making,” says Dr. Chein.
Graduate students in particular will be able to take advantage of TUBRIC thanks to neuroimaging courses now featuring a hands-on component at the Center. And the benefits really are about the entire facility, not just the scanner. In fact, it’s because the scanner is located in TUBRIC and not in a hospital that makes this such a golden opportunity for graduate students. Because the Center was purpose-built for academic brain study, the environment can be controlled, allowing students to fully understand the research that’s being performed.
“They’ll be able to leave here with really high data and the knowledge of the source of procedures for handling that data that will allow them to become independent as researchers.
A Brighter Future
TUBRIC has been years in the making, with Temple receiving a National Science Foundation grant in August 2015 that allowed Dr. Chein’s vision to become a reality in 2018. There was even a mix-up along the way when the scanner meant for TUBRIC accidentally ended up at a nearby Ivy League school, and that school’s less-powerful scanner showed up on Temple’s doorstep. Thankfully, the mistake was cleared up on the same day, with both scanners making it to their rightful homes.
And now, Temple’s College of Liberal Arts is more empowered than ever before to conduct non-invasive human brain imaging that will further push the boundaries of the already impressive research conducted here. Dr. Chein is “exuberant” that the facility will allow Temple to “keep up with the Joneses” and do so sooner than expected when it opens about six months ahead of schedule.
“I think we’re at a moment now where we have a really functional facility and people can start getting the ball rolling on their research, so I couldn’t be more excited about where we’re at right now.”
View a full gallery of the some of the great moments from the TUBRIC grand opening!
Photography by Colleen Claggett