Entry Date:
October 24, 2006

Athinoula A Martinos Imaging Center at McGovern Institute

The A.A. Martinos Imaging Center at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research provides one of the few places in the world where researchers can conduct comparative studies of the human brain and the brains of differing animal species. It also occasions the first time in its 140-year history that MIT has an on-campus capability to image a living person's brain.

Brain imaging is the only non-invasive way to actually see the organization and function of the human brain. Unlike in animals, researchers cannot drill into the skull to insert electrodes that measure the activity of specific neurons. MRI machines can picture the brain activity of a person learning a skill, remembering events, or moving a hand. Seeing the brain in action enables neuroscientists to determine what parts of the brain get recruited for different types of thoughts and behaviors.

Importantly, brain imaging can also show scientists what normal patterns of brain activity look like compared to those in people with various diseases and disorders. They can see, for example, what's different when an autistic child is shown an image of a face, when an elderly patient responds to a question, or when someone with schizophrenia describes a scene. Such studies also help "dissect" the brain's functional regions, revealing some previously unknown portions involved in recognizing faces and places, for instance.

Brain imaging expands the faculty's research horizons by bridging the divide between basic neuroscience research and the understanding of how human beings perceive, learn, and behave. That linkage represents a critical step in discovering ways to alleviate the human suffering caused by neurological and psychological conditions.

The imaging center contains three sunken bays for the magnets used in fMRI. One bay holds a state-of-the-art new 3 Tesla MRI machine for human subjects, leased from the Siemens Corporation. Tesla refers to the strength of the magnet, and 3 Tesla is as strong as considered safe and practical for people.

The second bay has a higher power 9.4 Tesla MRI for animal studies. This machine provides higher resolution images, which can then provide insights into areas to be explored in human studies. For example, such animal scans led to the discovery that the frontal cortex is involved in working memory. In addition, MIT researchers investigating the role of specific genes in brain functions can use the imaging center to literally see the difference that genetic manipulations in animals produce.

The third bay is reserved for a next-generation technology that the MIT community of researchers will help develop. The excitement of brain imaging will draw in the expertise of the engineering, physics, computer science, molecular biology, and many other departments.

The onsite brain imaging center will help the McGovern Institute achieve its overarching goal of fostering a higher level of collaboration among researchers from different divisions, including some of the top brain imaging experts in the world. The Institute's imaging center forms a joint "center without walls" with the Martinos Imaging Center at MGH, and the faculty will continue to collaborate with MGH researchers. Investigators and students from MIT's Brain and Cognitive Science Department and the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory, as well as the MIT community at large, will also conduct studies using the McGovern's magnets.

John Gabrieli, an Associate Member of the McGovern Institute and the Grover Hermann Professor in Health Sciences and Technology and Neuroscience in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, directs the A.A. Martinos Imaging Center. Major gifts from Pat and Lore McGovern and the Martinos family made the center possible, with significant contributions of space, money, and talent from MIT's Health Science and Technology Department, the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, and Provost's office.