Next generation of brain imaging being developed locally

The technology, magnetic resonance elastography (MRE), is a non-invasive method for monitoring and measuring the stiffness soft tissues in the human body. MRE technology is currently being used to replace some biopsy procedures—particularly in the liver—due to its high degree of accuracy.

Now, imaging experts at the U of I and Carle Neuroscience Institute (CNI) physicians are applying the precision of MRE to the intricacies of the human brain. During an MRE exam, the patient’s head is gently stimulated with vibrations. These vibrations cause brain tissue to shift slightly, allowing researchers to measure brain tissue stiffness which is an indicator of brain health. MRE can also measure brain tumor stiffness much less invasively than a biopsy.

“This is very new technology; it is only being done in select centers in the world. It has the potential of making brain tumor surgery safer and easier. There are no other places to go for MRE at this time that could duplicate what is available here,” said William Olivero, MD, neurosurgeon at Carle.

Curtis Johnson, PhD, assistant director of magnetic resonance operations at the Beckman Institute’s Biomedical Imaging Center (BIC) is the Illinois investigator working with Dr. Olivero on a MRE brain tumor study.

“Knowing how stiff brain tumors are before surgery can improve outcomes and ensure the surgery is as noninvasive and short as possible. Brain tumors take less time to remove if doctors know it’s a softer tissue before they start surgery,” Johnson said.

Translating scientific advances in imaging to medical applications is not a new endeavor for Illinois researchers. BIC Director Tracey Wszalek PhD, who also serves as the Interdisciplinary Health Sciences Initiative at Illinois’ Director of Neuroscience Clinical Partnerships, says there has been collaboration on clinical and translational research projects with Carle for more than 20 years.

“The difference is today, both institutions are really ready to work together and make brain research a priority,” said Wszalek. “There is now dedicated staff to facilitate studies, to make them happen. Neuroscience collaborations, using imaging as a foundation, are proving to be great models of how to develop new clinical research collaborations between Carle and the University.”

Wszalek helps coordinate several collaborations within the Carle Neuroscience Institute, and the University including another MRE study. Graham Huesmann, MD, PhD, neurologist who launched an Epilepsy Center at Carle in 2014, says brain MRE may be able to help treat epilepsy well before the disease becomes advanced.

“We are hoping that we can identify a patient’s epilepsy long before there is a change on a traditional scan. The earlier it is identified, the better the treatment can be and we can avoid a lot of the long term problems with untreated or under treated epilepsy,” Dr. Huesmann explained.

“This is the first epilepsy study in the world to have scanned this many patients so far with MRE. It is truly innovative and exciting research,” Dr. Huesmann added. 

Brain MRE is still in a research phase, and Huesmann said it may be several years until patients see the benefits of the current research at Carle and the U of I.

“I tell potential subjects that participation in the study will not change their care, and will not benefit them directly, but that by participating they can do their part to help others with the same condition. Most people are gracious and actually grateful to have the opportunity to participate in a study that could benefit others,” said Dr. Huesmann.

For more information about the groundbreaking brain research being conducted by Carle and the University of Illinois, please visit:
Magnetic Resonance Elastography at Illinois website: mre.beckman.illinois.edu
Biomedical Imaging Center website: bic.beckman.illinois.edu
Carle Neuroscience Institute website: carle.org/neurosciences

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