State-of-the-art scanner expands brain imaging to whole body

The Cape Universities Brain Imaging Centre (CUBIC) has expanded to a whole body imaging facility that will be based at the University of Cape Town (UCT).

This joint initiative between the electronics giant Siemens, Stellenbosch University, UCT and the Medical Research Council (MRC) was established in 2007 when the centre acquired a research dedicated Siemens 3T Allegra magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) head scanner that was hosted at the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences (FMHS), Stellenbosch University.

“It created a wonderful opportunity to do state-of-the art research in brain imaging and many researchers from both Stellenbosch and UCT participated in research projects,” says Prof Robin Emsley of the Department of Psychiatry at the FMHS, who also holds the Sarah Turoff Endowed Chair in Schizophrenia Research.

The centre has entered a new phase with the acquisition of a Siemens 3T Skyra MRI scanner which will enable researchers to take MRI scans of the entire body, as opposed to only the head as was the case with the original machine which was shut down in December last year.

“It has now become the Cape University’s Body Imaging Centre and research looking at areas other than the brain, like cardiology and oncology, can also benefit from this technology,” says Emsley of the new scanner that is hosted at UCT. MRI scans for any new or existing research from the FMHS will be done at the UCT facility.

“Ultimately the plan is to have scanners at both Stellenbosch and UCT to help accommodate the growing need for this technology,” says Emsley.

The original CUBIC scanner was used for research in psychiatry, neurology, paediatrics and oncology.

“It was a fantastic machine that enabled us to study not only the structure, but also the function of the brain in great detail,” says Dr Stefan du Plessis, a researcher with the Department of Psychiatry. “MRI can create images of brain function by highlighting blood and oxygen flow in certain areas while the brain is given a certain task. With an MRI you can actually see the brain processing and get an idea of the mechanisms by which neuropsychiatric disorders impact the brain.

“By understanding the mechanism you can move to treatment more easily, and it is not a shot in the dark anymore,” Du Plessis explains.

With the help of the original CUBIC scanner, Du Plessis studied the impact of HIV on a person’s motivational processing for this PhD. “The study found that HIV impacts blood flow to the reward centres of the brain which hints at why some patients become depressed and apathetic.”

Over the course of the eight years the scanner enabled many important research projects, including studies on post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, Parkinson’s Disease and more.

Although both the old and new scanners use 3-tesla technology, the bigger size of the new machine is expected to be more comfortable for patients and it can accommodate the latest software that could expand the research capabilities of the scanner.

Wilma Stassen