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Exploring the Cosmos of the Brain

A magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner with a field strength of 9.4 tesla – that's approximately 200,000 times stronger than the Earth's magnetic field – coupled with a positron emission tomograph (PET) is enabling scientists at Jülich to take a more detailed look into the brain than ever before.

The hybrid device provides high-resolution images of the brain structure which simultaneously show the functional activities occurring in the healthy and diseased brain. This device enables scientists for the first time to simultaneously analyse the structure and function of the brain down to the molecular level.

While MRT differentiates between different types of tissue in the brain, PET makes the physiological and biochemical activities of the brain visible. Scientists are able to simultaneously analyse the structure and the brain down to the molecular level for the first time. Thus, the highly complex hybrid device thus creates the foundation for a better understanding of neurological diseases such as epilepsy, stroke, Alzheimer's disease and multiple sclerosis, as well as their diagnosis and therapy.

MRT (left) and PET (right) are combined (middle)Images of the brain obtained using simultaneous magnetic resonance tomography (left) and through positron emission tomography (right). With the new device, the two techniques can be combined (middle). Even shaper MRT images are expected with the 9.4-T-MR-PET.
Copyright: Forschungszentrum Jülich

9komma4Developers of the device invented a new technology known as avalanche photodiodes, which allows MRI and PET techniques to be combined.
Copyright: Forschungszentrum Jülich

New Diagnostic Opportunities: Alzheimer's

In Germany, well over a million people suffer from dementia, in most cases from Alzheimer's. Experts estimate that this number will double in the next three decades. This is not only a stroke of fate for the persons affected and their relatives, but also a burden for the health system.

Alzheimer's causes nerve cells to die off in the brain and more and more areas are damaged. As a result, the brain may shrink by as much as one fifth. The people affected are less frequently able to cope with tasks of their daily life on their own. Sooner or later they need constant nursing care.

To date, the disease is not curable and a definite diagnosis is only possible after death. The early stages of Alzheimer's are particularly difficult to differentiate from other diseases. In the advanced stages, MRT investigations clearly show the shrinking of the brain areas. Here, in particular, an early diagnosis is important: if the disease is diagnosed at an early stage, the occurrence of severe symptoms can be delayed. To this end, patients can, for example, start with brain training.

The simultaneous measurements with the hybrid scanner open up new diagnostic opportunities. Researchers aim to investigate how the administering of drugs influences the brain and the course of a disease, whether oxygen consumption in certain brain regions is different in healthy and sick people when solving a problem and how fast cells react.

Jülich researchers hope that they will eventually be able to identify markers that clearly characterise the early stages of Alzheimer's. Once the markers are defined using "9point4", a diagnosis should also be possible with simpler devices.

Cancer Diagnosis

Jülich researchers are also further developing cancer diagnosis by exploring special radionuclides for labelling tumours. The combination of PET and MRT in one measurement will provide additional information for characterizing tissue even prior to surgery. Researchers also hope to make progress in the early diagnosis of dementia using the combined tomograph. The simultaneous measurements with "9komma4" open up new diagnostic options. The researchers would like to investigate how the administration of drugs influences the brain and the course of disease.

The 9.4 T MR-PET completes the Jülich research platform "TransFOR" with respect to imaging techniques in brain research. The devices available in Jülich enable the direct transfer of basic findings to clinical application.