Shreyan Majumdar, research scientist at the Beckman Institute's Biomedical Imaging Center, is the first point of contact for anyone looking to conduct research on Beckman’s newly purchased Bruker 9.4 Tesla preclinical MRI system, a $6 million project completed over the past year.
Since the instrument became available for use this past January, Majumdar has handled the maintenance and repair of the machine and has helped train fellow researchers to use the magnet to scan mice, rats, biological and chemical samples, and just recently, a bearded dragon.
Similarly to a human MRI scanner, the machine enables researchers to look at organs and structures inside the body or object being scanned. However, the imaging volume is much smaller than a human brain, meaning it’s essential to have a state-of-the-art machine that can image smaller samples at a much higher quality. The MRI, which arrived at Beckman through the efforts of 18 University of Illinois colleges, departments, and schools, along with a generous gift from the Roy J. Carver Charitable Trust, does just that.
“The MRI is effective for scanning the inside of a sample,” Majumdar said. “Chemicals, vegetables, fruits — even crops that might be tested for food quality. Anything that has water inside is able to be imaged.”
Illinois previously lacked scanners of this kind, meaning the device is opening doors for research that wouldn’t otherwise be possible on campus. Since joining the Biomedical Imaging Center to train users on the MRI scanner, Majumdar has received over a dozen inquiries from professors about how the tool can play a role in upcoming research.
“Having this scanner on campus allows Illinois a lot of advantages in terms of doing projects that weren’t previously possible,” he said. “In the long run, it also helps the university attract new talent, new researchers, and professors. Having the 9.4 Tesla machine right here at Beckman is essential for expanding the research umbrella.”
While the machine has endless applications for a variety of disciplines like crop sciences and biological engineering, learning about animals can often lend itself to human discoveries, too.
With the MRI scanner, researchers can conduct safe, non-invasive assessments of animal physiology to build a strong foundation for understanding the human body and brain.
Brad Sutton, the BIC's technical director and professor of bioengineering at Illinois, is using the animal MRI to provide essential measurements in his team’s groundbreaking research on a process that occurs in our brains while we sleep.
“When you’re asleep, the brain has certain channels that allow it to clear out some of the products that are created during the day as part of your energy processes,” he said. “This process clears out metabolic byproducts, or in other words, clears out waste as you sleep.”
The process known as glymphatic flow may be related to restorative sleep, and improper processes to clear out these compounds could cause neurological diseases like Alzheimer's. By measuring animals’ brains, the researchers can determine variables that affect glymphatic flow in a way that’s not currently possible with humans.
“Through our research, we’re asking the question: ‘Are there ways to manipulate the sleep process to make the sleep more effective?’ [With] something like Alzheimer's where you have years of damage and buildup, it’s very hard to tell what’s contributing to this buildup,” Sutton said. “However, animals have a shorter time horizon.”
Without the new animal-specific scanner, Sutton’s research — along with many other projects in action on campus — couldn’t be completed. Critical measurements of soft tissue structures, or the structures that are not bone in the body and brain, are necessary for many types of research and are easily viewed with the MRI. This is essential as many disease states affect the properties of these soft tissues and change their appearance on MRI.
“This is really going to help unlock the secrets of our sleep research. We could not have done this at all without this scanner,” Sutton said. “It’s very multidisciplinary, and it’s not something we could do without the Beckman Institute bringing all these different disciplines together.”