UH team aims to develop new portable, brain-mapping alternative to fMRI

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Two Japanese scientists are collaborating with the University of Houston (UH) to help develop a brain-mapping device that could deliver more comprehensive and accurate insights into the mind at a fraction of the cost of current technologies, such as functional MRI (fMRI).

In April, Mikio Kubota of Seijo University in Tokyo and Mayako Inouchi of Waseda University in Tokyo will join the research team at UH's Biomedical Imaging Lab. They will work as visiting faculty members with lab director George Zouridakis, MD, to expand a noninvasive technology that may offer a more thorough understanding of brain activities and help diagnose traumatic brain injuries in emergency rooms and on the battlefield.

The device the team has in the works fits on a patient's head, Zouridakis explained, and its configuration of fiber optics and special electrodes sends light, via laser diodes, into the brain. The light, which becomes scattered as it travels through the layers of the brain tissue, is then reflected back out of the brain and is measured by a set of sensors. It is the reflected light's unique properties that indicate what's going on in the brain, he said.

"The typical approach currently used for brain mapping is functional MRI, or fMRI," said Zouridakis, associate professor at UH's College of Technology. "However, an fMRI scanner is expensive, on the order of millions of dollars, and confined in one place, as it requires a shielded room because of the strong magnetic fields. It also requires specialized personnel to maintain and operate."

Zouridakis said his team aims to eliminate such obstacles.

"Our technology marries high-density electroencephalography, or EEG, which measures the electrophysiological activity of the brain, with near-infrared spectroscopy, or NIRS, which provides information about cerebral blood flow," Zouridakis said. "Like the EEG, NIRS is portable, costs only about $200,000, does not need a special room or personnel to maintain, and can quantify both direct and indirect measures of brain activity."

Combining the merits of EEG and NIRS, Zouridakis explained, will allow the team to study both electrical and metabolic activities at the same time and could improve patient benefits.

"Typically, two separate tests are done on a patient at two different times--probably on different days--one to get the metabolic aspects and another to capture the electrophysiological aspects of brain activation," Zouridakis said. "What we propose is to get both aspects simultaneously so that the information obtained is truly complementary."

"What I envision is a very portable device that, by combining two or more techniques, can be used, for example, for rapid assessment of traumatic brain injury," said Luca Pollonini, MD, who joined Zouridakis' team in September 2008 as a research associate.

"If I rush into the ER because my kid fell off his bike, and I want to be sure he is fine, the only way now to assess brain injury is to run a CT scan, which delivers radiation to the body, or a MRI scan, for which you have to be immobile. With pain and emotional distress emerging after a traumatic episode, it is hard to stay still during these examinations," said Pollonini, who collaborates with Nirox, an Italian company established in 2005 to commercialize NIRS technologies.

The lab already is equipped with a sensitive NIRS scanner available, paid for with a grant from the National Science Foundation. Pollonini has contributed a portable NIRS device that was designed by Nirox, and Kubota is working with Japanese company Shimadzu to facilitate the installation of up to two others.

"The college is very excited about the translational research of Dr. Zouridakis in computational biomedicine and biomedical imaging," said William Fitzgibbon, dean of the UH College of Technology. "His effort in noninvasive brain imaging brings together multinational effort, which includes researchers from Spain, Japan and UH, as well as Japanese and Italian firms. His facility, when augmented by a team of two Japanese scientists who will be visiting, will be state of the art by all standards."