Army awards $1.5M to conduct PET/MR sleep research

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The Arlington Innovation Center (AiC): Health Research, of Virginia Tech's National Capital Region, has been awarded a $1.5 million cooperative research and development agreement from the U.S. Army for neuroimaging studies of human performance. The agreement also includes an option for $3 million of future work based on availability of funding.

The Virginia Tech project team is led by Seong K. Mun, PhD, professor of physics, research fellow and director of the center; Kenneth H. Wong, research assistant professor of physics; and Alpay Özcan, research assistant professor, all of whom are members of AiC team. Other collaborators are Linda Larson-Prior, PhD, research associate professor in the department of radiology at Washington University in St. Louis, and Zang-Hee Cho, PhD, director of the Neuroscience Research Institute at Gachon University in South Korea.

"Sleep (or lack of sleep) affects our physical and neurological performance," Mun said in a statement. "The central scientific effort of this project will be to improve our understanding of how the brainstem and thalamus regulate sleep in humans, and how these systems are affected by stress and sleep restriction."

Mun said this area has received little attention in the past, largely because it lies deep within the brain in a region that is difficult to study. As a result, most of what is known about this region comes from animal models, which have different sleep patterns than humans. A few human studies have been done in this region, but they result in poor spatial resolution that cannot identify detailed brainstem structures.

"The combination of high resolution PET and 7T MRI enables us to image brain biochemistry in vivo and precisely localize that activity," Mun said.

The Neuroscience Research Institute at Gachon University is the only facility with combined imaging capability of 7T MRI and PET, Wong added.

"This project will focus particularly on serotonin systems in the brainstem and thalamus, because they play a key role in sleep cycling, mood and stress responses," Wong said.

A parallel goal for the project is to create a reference database and teaching files for the army on advanced MRI methods such as diffusion tensor imaging and tractography.