New Technology in Clinical Applications

Image: New Technology with Clinical Applications

Caption: Scientists at Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center, Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center have created a powerful new technology for viewing the brain at work. Using high-speed networks to link an MRI scanner with a supercomputer, they've made it possible to convert scan data almost instantaneously into an animated 3-D image showing what parts of the brain "light up" during mental activity.

"Using the CRAY T3E and high-speed networking," says PSC neural scientist Nigel Goddard, "processing that used to take more than a day takes about 10 seconds, and we're working to get it under a second."

Typically, techniques that provide pictures of the functioning brain involve a substantial delay, a day or more, between gathering data and the availability of high-quality 3-D images. The Pittsburgh team has cut this to seconds.

"We expect that this technology will set the stage to use brain-mapping as a clinical tool in diagnosis and treatment of brain pathology," says Dr. Jonathan Cohen, who codirects the Laboratory for Clinical Cognitive Neuroscience, a joint venture of the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon. Real-time capability will aid neurosurgeons in precision surgical planning, and it can be used to test and diagnose cognitive dysfunctions such as schizophrenia, amnesia and epilepsy. With high-speed networking, doctors at locations distant from the MRI scanner can actively consult in patient testing.

Mapping the Brain

For several years, Cohen and his colleagues have used a technique known as functional MRI (fMRI) to do "brain-mapping" experiments that investigate and map the brain regions involved in a particular kind of memory activity known as "working memory." Data from an MRI scanner shows what sites in a subject's brain are active during mental activity. These experiments generate huge amounts of information quickly, and initially it took days to process the data into a high-resolution 3-D image. To eliminate this bottleneck, the researchers turned to PSC. Carnegie Mellon statistician William Eddy and UPMC physicist Doug Noll worked in collaboration with Goddard and PSC research programmer Greg Hood to exploit the CRAY T3E, a highly parallel system that divides the computing among many processors. In November 1996, the researchers reduced processing time so that a realistic 3-D image of the brain could be viewed live, while the subject was in the scanner, with a delay between mental activity and image availability of about six minutes. The team has now cut this delay to seconds, and they are working to get it under a second, which will allow an improvement in image quality.

In demonstrations of this real-time brain-mapping capability, a test subject - one of the researchers - lies inside an MRI scanner at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and performs a simple mental task. The MRI scanner records data from her brain and transmits it via high-speed network to PSC's CRAY T3E, which converts the raw fMRI data into 3-D images, compensates for head movement and identifies active areas of the brain. From the T3E, the data travels to a remote location via high-speed network, where observers see the subject's brain as a translucent animation showing what regions "light up" as she does the mental task.

Source: Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center, Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center

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