Facebook LinkedIn Twitter

Game-changing technology: £1m grant will enable BRAIN Unit researchers discover brain abnormalities that cause disease

Researchers at Cardiff University have been awarded funding that will enable them to better map the brain to treat diseases such as epilepsy, dementia, and multiple sclerosis.

A £1 million grant from the Medical Research Council was secured by Cardiff University, along with University College London, Leeds and the University of Cape Western Reserve. The Cardiff University team includes Professor Derek Jones, Professor Liam Gray, Khalid Hamandi and Dr Marco Palombo.

The grant will enable researchers to ‘make the invisible visible’ by obtaining high-quality images of the human brain and learning the mapping between Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) and histology, the microscopic study of human tissue.

Making the invisible visible

Professor Liam Gray explained, “One of the key challenges in diagnosing brain disease such as epilepsy, dementia or multiple sclerosis is the difficulty in detecting small and subtle cortical abnormalities that are not easily identified. Conventional MRI scanners can detect abnormal signals, but it’s impossible to tell what’s driving them; this could be differences in cell size, shape or density. Currently, such information can only be obtained by cutting the tissue and examining it under a microscope.”

Examining the cortex using state-of-the-art equipment

The funding will enable researchers to take advantage of advances in MRI physics, which hold the promise of detecting and characterising tissue abnormalities that are currently “invisible”. Such technologies have been applied to the examination of white matter, which is associated with psychiatric diseases such as schizophrenia, but the cortex remains unexplored to an extent.

To illuminate infected tissue, BRAIN researchers will scan patients in state-of-the-art equipment, remove pathological tissue through surgery, transport it to an experimental MRI scanner for extended scanning, and then light microscopy and electron microscopy will be used. These techniques allow us to see the brain over a variety of scales of magnification.

This will allow us to establish an MRI signalling ‘fingerprint’ of specific disease processes in the cortex that are currently invisible to conventional MRI, creating a significant change in our ability to localise pathologies in the brain and monitor them non-invasively over time.

Funding research opportunities

The grant will also fund an 18-month Clinical Research Fellow in an Experimental Functional Neurosurgery position. The Clinical Research Fellow will be responsible for preparing and recruiting study participants as well as dealing with and processing surgical tissue during the study.

Professor Gray will carry out surgery to extract tissue samples from patients, who will be anonymously linked to the work so data can remain confidential. It is then processed in the Human Tissue Laboratories of the BRAIN Unit at the University Hospital of Wales (YAC). Samples will then be sent to colleagues on the MRC grant who will scan the tissue and process it for Immunohistochemistry (IHC) and electron microscopy which will show disease evidence that will be mapped to the Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI).

Professor Liam Gray said, “If successful, this technology could help us localise the cortical pathology that causes epilepsy in the brain and allow surgery to be more accurately targeted to cure epilepsy. It could also significantly expand the population of patients suitable for surgery.”