The School of Medicine has been awarded a $2 million grant from the National Center for Research Resources (NCRR) for the purchase of a powerful new 7 Tesla (7T) magnetic resonance system. The 7T system, one of only about a dozen in the world, will be installed in the medical school’s Anlyan Center this summer. The system will allow Yale researchers to perform ultra-high-resolution MR studies of epilepsy, diabetes, psychiatric diseases, cancer and learning disorders in humans.

The new equipment, obtained with funds from the NCRR’s High-End Instrumentation Program, will be a shared resource for several investigators funded by the National Institutes of Health under the leadership of Douglas L. Rothman, Ph.D., professor of diagnostic radiology and biomedical engineering.

According to Rothman, the equipment will be used primarily for magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS) studies of humans, which create profiles of the chemicals present in various tissues, or in different regions of the same tissue. The 7T system can chemically analyze areas of tissue as small as 3 cubic centimeters.

As a complement to the new imaging initiative, the medical school has recruited the research team of Hoby P. Hetherington, Ph.D., and Jullie W. Pan, M.D., Ph.D., from Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

Moving to the School of Medicine is a scientific homecoming for Hetherington and Pan, who along with Rothman received their doctoral degrees in the laboratory of Robert G. Shulman, Ph.D., Sterling Professor Emeritus of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry and a pioneer of MRS research.

Since 1998, first at Brookhaven National Laboratory and then at Einstein, Hetherington and Pan have collaborated with Yale’s Dennis D. Spencer, M.D., the Harvey and Kate Cushing Professor of Neurosurgery. In MRS studies of Spencer’s epilepsy patients, Hetherington and Pan have generated biochemical brain images that Spencer has used as a guide to seizure-prone areas of the brain during surgery. The researchers hope the 7T system will allow them to accurately predict which patients will go on to develop epilepsy following a first seizure.

Hetherington says that MRS is a particularly powerful technique for studying neurological diseases, because it can detect depletions of a brain-specific chemical that occurs not only in epilepsy, but also in neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s disease and multiple sclerosis.

“It’s very clear that there is better sensitivity for a number of pathologies, especially epilepsy, using spectroscopic imaging,” he says. “But for almost any neurological disorder, there’s an advantage. Alzheimer’s is a prime example of where spectroscopy works well for early detection.”

According to Pan, the high resolution of the 7T system changes the landscape of her research. “The 7T system is critical because it allows us to draw conclusions at a volume size that makes sense. At 1.5 T, you have to make a measurement from the entire brain, but with 7T you can make a measurement on the order of a few cubic centimeters,” she says. “Having a measurement of the whole brain is interesting, but it doesn’t tell me anything specific. With a 7T system I can tell exactly where in the brain I want to look and be accurate about it.”

The NCRR makes one-time awards to support the purchase of sophisticated instruments costing more than $750,000 to advance biomedical research and increase knowledge of the underlying causes of human disease.

“The High-End Instrumentation Program provides numerous investigators access to essential equipment, often benefiting entire research communities and dramatically advancing their research projects,” says Barbara M. Alving, M.D., the NCRR’s acting director. “These awards spur the kind of scientific discoveries necessary for the development of treatments for a broad spectrum of diseases.”

The School of Medicine will contribute approximately half of the system’s cost, as well as the cost of installation in the recently constructed 30,000-square-foot Magnetic Resonance Research Center in the Anlyan Center.

“The new 7T system will provide Yale scientists with the capability of imaging biochemistry and functional activity of the brain and limbs at unprecedented levels of spatial resolution,” says Rothman. “The research will be unique among ultra-high-field MR systems in its focus on developing and applying MR biochemical imaging for the understanding, diagnosis and treatment of disease.”