Kawin Setsompop and colleagues receive one of the first BRAIN Initiative grants

September 30, 2014


The Martinos Center’s Kawin Setsompop is among a team of researchers awarded a $1.4 million grant today as part of the White House’s BRAIN Initiative, designed to advance understandings of the human brain through innovative neurotechnologies. The project is among the first wave of grants awarded by the NIH as part of the initiative.

Led by David Feinberg, an adjunct professor of neuroscience at the University of California, Berkeley, and also including collaborators at the University of California, San Francisco, and Duke University, the project will seek to improve the spatial resolution of magnetic resonance imaging. Its goal is to increase the detail in brain images by more than 30 times over today’s most powerful MRI scanners.

“We want to create the necessary technology to enable MRI to image the brain in vivo non-invasively at a microscale level,” said Setsompop, an assistant professor of radiology at Harvard Medical School and the Athinoula A. Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging at MGH. “This would really open up exciting possibilities in studying the brain’s fine-scale neuronal circuitry as well as its network organization, and allow us to vastly improve our understanding of the human brain.”

Functional MRI, or fMRI, uses magnetic fields and radio waves to pinpoint areas of the brain involved in specific tasks, from reading or recognizing faces to emotions such as fear or affection. It detects faint signals from deep in the brain’s interior with coils of wire arranged around the head. To achieve this, the receiver coils need to be relatively large—eight centimeters (3 ¼ inches) in diameter in state-of-the-art machines with 32 coils.

If you want to study thinking and learning, however, you need focus only on the outer three millimeters of the brain, the grey matter or cortex.

“The gray matter at the surface of the brain is where the neuron cell bodies and nerve networks lie, so that is where the action is,” Feinberg said. “To probe that thin layer, we will use many smaller coils—each with greater sensitivity—to gather more detail in the brain cortex close to the coil.”

The researchers plan to develop a new technique, MR Corticography (MRCoG) or cortical MRI, that will reveal changes in much smaller regions, identifying the cellular layers of the cortex. Using this, they hope to see features as small as 200 microns across, or about twice the width of a human hair.

Ultimately, they said, the technique could advance a number of important applications in the brain. One of the aims of the project is to be able to map nerve fibers and brain connectivity. They also point to a range of possible clinical applications, including traumatic brain injury, autism and epilepsy.


With thanks to Bob Sanders, UC Berkeley Media Relations. See also here: