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Brain Research UK funding supports new state-of-the-art MRI scanner at UCL

L-R. Prof Cathy Price, Director of Wellcome Centre for Human Neuroimaging; Dr Andrew Welchman, Wellcome; Jonathan Kropman, Trustee of Brain Research UK; and Prof Richard Frackowiak, Founding Director of the WCHN celebrate the opening of the 7T scanning facilities in January

In 1995 we received our biggest ever donation - a sum of £3.6 million from the Estate of the late Leopold Muller. This gift was to be used to establish an endowment to support new neuroimaging facilities at UCL Institute of Neurology. In 2019 the remaining funds were gifted to UCL to enable the purchase and installation of a new state-of-the-art ultra-high field MRI scanner.

An incredible legacy born out of terrible tragedy

Leopold Muller arrived in Britain from Czechoslovakia in 1938 after his wife and two daughters died in the Holocaust. He developed a hugely successful restaurant and hotel business, amassing great personal wealth. When he died in 1988, he left his fortune to UK charities, selected by his Trustees at their discretion. Funding was distributed to around 300 charities, including those devoted to medical research and clinical treatment, and projects for youth, the aged and education.

The funds left to us were used to set up an endowment for the purpose of funding the operating costs of the new Functional Imaging Laboratory at UCL Institute of Neurology. This new lab brought together an interdisciplinary group of neuroscientists to exploit rapidly evolving brain imaging technology to answer key biological questions about cognition. The laboratory was renamed the Leopold Muller Functional Imaging Laboratory, in recognition of this tremendous gift.

World-leading neuroimaging research

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is an invaluable scientific and clinical tool, which enables the study of the living human brain. Advances in MRI techniques over recent decades have transformed research and clinical practice – improving our understanding and diagnosis of neurological and psychiatric disorders.

The Wellcome Centre for Human Neuroimaging (WCHN), which houses the Leopold Muller Functional Imaging Lab at UCL, brings together clinicians and scientists who study the neural basis of human mental functions. Their aim is to understand how a wide range of sensory, motor and cognitive functions arise from brain activity, how such processes break down in neurological and psychiatric disease, and how this break down can be treated.

Teams working in the Centre have made a huge contribution to neuroscientific knowledge and are at the cutting edge of neuroimaging research internationally. They have published more than 2,600 research papers, which have been cited hundreds of thousands of times. They have developed and openly shared software for the analysis of neuroimaging data, which is now used worldwide, and have trained hundreds of neuroscientists and clinicians from around the world.

One of the keys to the great success of the teams working in the Centre is its close proximity to the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery (NHNN). This facilitates even greater collaboration with clinical teams and provides access to unique populations of patients, driving forward both research and patient care.

A new era: 7T MRI

Whilst existing ‘3T’ scanners are incredibly powerful tools that have revolutionised our understanding of the brain, new ultra-high field ‘7T’ scanners are a leap forward in terms of their power to reveal the detailed structure and function of the brain.

MRI uses magnetic fields to produce images of the living brain non-invasively. 3T scanners have a magnetic field strength of 3 tesla, allowing visualisation of structures on a millimetre scale. The new 7T scanners, with a field strength of 7 tesla, are much more sensitive, pushing resolution to the sub-millimetre scale. This enables the identification of minute abnormalities, not visible via 3T, that might be important for understanding and diagnosing neurodegenerative diseases in their early, pre-symptomatic stages.

Access to 7T scanning technology is essential to the team at WCHN if they are to remain at the forefront of neuroimaging research and continue to advance knowledge of the function – and dysfunction – of the human brain. Accordingly, we were pleased to apply the balance of funds remaining in the Muller Endowment to support the purchase and installation of a 7T scanner at the Centre. The scanner was delivered in May 2019 and, following a period of set up and testing, is now fully operational.

This cutting-edge technology will transform the team's study of the detailed function of the brain and advance mechanistic understanding of neurological and psychiatric disorders. With their access to patient populations at NHNN, they plan to study patients who are gene positive for Huntington’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, frontotemporal dementia and epilepsy. These are people who have genetic characteristics that mean they are more likely to develop these diseases but do not yet have symptoms. Using 7T imaging to study the brains of these patients will give unprecedented new insights into the very earliest stages in the development and progression of these diseases and could potentially pave the way for pre-symptomatic treatments.

7T scanners are a leap forward in terms of their power to reveal the intricacies of the brain
"The arrival of the new 7T MRI scanner is a very exciting time for our Centre because it greatly advances our capacity to gain mechanistic understanding into various neurological and psychiatric disorders. We aim to exploit this new technology and our findings to positively impact patient care." Professor Cathy Price, Director, Wellcome Centre for Human Neuroimaging