On Tuesday October 29, Europe’s most advanced scanner lab “Brains Unlimited” will be officially opened by King Willem-Alexander at Maastricht University in The Netherlands. Siemens Healthcare won the turnkey order to design and construct a special building for the lab and equip it with three powerful whole-body high-field MRI systems. Now up and running, the MRI scanners (3T, 7T and 9.4T) will be used in major research projects into the functioning of the human brain that Brains Unlimited will be carrying out.
How our brains work may therefore become less of a mystery in the near future, thanks to this powerful equipment. Siemens not only supplied the very latest developments in MRI scanner technology, but brought its experience in sustainable construction, design and implementation to the building complex that now houses the scanners. Brains Unlimited is an initiative of the MBIC (Maastricht Brain Imaging Center), and is led by Professor Rainer Goebel. The MBIC is part of the university’s neuropsychology faculty and co-operates closely with brain scientists from the University Medical Center Maastricht.
The university has thus now acquired not only a 3 Tesla and a 7 Tesla system, but also the most powerful MRI system (9.4 Tesla) that is currently available for human research. Siemens is the only company in the world capable of supplying a system like this. Many times more powerful than a “routine” MRI system in a hospital, the 9.4 T machine can reveal a lot more detail and makes it possible to observe the functioning of the human brain at a microscopic level, or as Professor Goebel says: “Now we can crack the code of the human brain.” Through this basic research, scientists hope to gain more insight into the causes of diseases affecting the brain such as MS, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, epilepsy and tumors. Research will also be conducted into the causes of behavioral changes and disorders such as dyslexia and ADHD. The new complex thus provides a unique, integrated platform that combines state-of-the art technology with clinical know-how (and access to patients) and internationally renowned expertise in post-acquisition processing of data from ultra-high field human MRI.
Next to the building housing the MRI systems, an “incubator” building has been erected to accommodate start-up companies specializing in spin-off marketing of practical innovations that it is hoped will come out of the brain research.
A company Scannexus has been set up to be the vehicle for the management of this facility, as well as providing the interface for the development and delivery of projects utilizing the scanner facility and carried out in collaboration with clinical and academic partners. Scannexus provides dedicated research technologists and a network of scientific, clinical and application expertise (via local (Dutch, Belgian, and German) universities, research institutes and hospitals) – with a particular focus on clinical neurology, cognitive neuroscience and mental health, but also MR spectroscopy. There are plans to develop cardiac and oncology imaging (both disciplines with strong clinical research teams in Maastricht).Scannexus currently has collaborations with research groups across Europe and the USA, with the MRI scanning aspect of research studies, frequently being carried out in Maastricht (usually at 7T, but sometimes also as a second 3T site) .
Scannexus is flexible in how researchers can interact with the facility – in some cases users are trained in the direct operation of the scanners so that they can visit the centre, acquire their own data themselves and interact with local researchers. In other cases, Scannexus advises external researchers regarding the definition of their protocols and procedures; thereafter Scannexus personnel can coordinate subject recruitment and data acquisition. Details available from Scannexus (www.scannexus.nl).
As well as acting as a research-service provider, Scannexus can also operate as a project partner in funding calls, and have access to a funding stream for pilot studies. The next call for applications for the Pioneer Fund will be announced on 29th October 2013.
On top of all this the Brains Unlimited project has given and will continue to give the region of Maastricht and its environs an enormous economic injection. The project is receiving financial support from the European Union, the Province of Limburg and the Municipality of Maastricht.