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Tweaked MRI Precisely Tracks Neurotransmitters

June 6, 2014
Written by: , Filed in: Neuroradiology
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Researchers at MIT have moved functional MRI a step closer to imaging real-time thinking.

“There’s a general recognition that in order to understand the brain’s processes in comprehensive detail,” said Alan Pradip Jasanoff, PhD, an associate professor of biological engineering, “we need ways to monitor neural function deep in the brain with spatial, temporal, and functional precision.”

Dr. Jasanoff thinks he and his colleagues have made a big move in that direction with a new MRI contrast agent. He is also an associate member of MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research and was quoted in an institute news release. He and his colleagues reported on their results in the May issue of Science. Dr. Jasanoff is senior author of the report.

The contrast agent is a protein, BM3h. When it binds to the neurotransmitter dopamine, its magnetic interactions with surrounding tissue weaken, and fMRI can detect that. When tested in rats, it worked. For the first time, researchers were able to map neural signals with high precision over large brain regions in living animals, Dr. Jasanoff said.

He said imaging neurotransmitters opens new areas of inquiry into brain functioning:

We want to be able to relate dopamine signaling to other neural processes that are going on. We can look at different types of stimuli and try to understand what dopamine is doing in different brain regions and relate it to other measures of brain function.

Dr. Jasanoff and his colleagues also plan to use the technique to study Parkinson’s disease, which is caused by the death of dopamine-generating cells. They’re also looking for other contrast agents that will allow them to track other neurotransmitters. We will doubtless be hearing much more from them; stay tuned.

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