Johnson Receives Young Investigator Award

Curtis Johnson, the assistant director for magnetic resonance operations in the Biomedical Imaging Center at the Beckman Institute, received the Young Investigator Award at the BRAIN Grand Challenges conference hosted by IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society (EMBS) in Washington, D.C. 

The goal of the Brain Grand Challenges conference is to discuss the plans for addressing the national government’s BRAIN Initiative, with “particular emphasis on engineering challenges to brain research through advancing innovative neurotechnologies, including but not limited to mapping neural circuits, understanding functional neural dynamics, controlling neural circuits, and restoring function.”

Johnson was honored for his research in elastography and its capabilities in predicting memory performance through the mechanical properties of the hippocampus. Through his high-resolution magnetic resonance elastography (MRE) method, Johnson was able to assess the structure and health of the hippocampus in the human brain. 

“Mechanical properties, such as stiffness and viscosity, generally reflect the integrity of the brain’s tissue structure, and can also indicate disease states within the tissue,” said Curtis. “With Beckman collaborators Hillary Schwarb and Neal Cohen, we decided to look at how these properties relate to neurological function. Since the hippocampus is strongly involved in memory function, we tested relational memory using a task designed by the Cohen group that is highly sensitive to hippocampal health, and compared it to the MRE results.”

Because the hippocampus is a small structure near the center of the brain, Johnson had to engineer a high-resolution imaging sequence to improve the measurement sensitivity. This is the first instance of the human hippocampus being studied with MRE. 

Together with his collaborators, Johnson found that the hippocampal MRE measures strongly indicated the participant’s memory performance. If the hippocampus is more elastic, it suggested the participant might have better memory performance, and vice versa.

“This means that the hippocampus MRE measures might be a very sensitive measure of the integrity of the tissue, and they may reflect different aspects of neurons and their connections that ultimately govern brain function,” said Johnson.

This is the first study to compare MRE measure in the brain with neurological functions, and has the potential to establish MRE as a means to investigate the relationship between brain structure and function.