Where is the final frontier? Some argue it is deep space or the darkest depths of the earth’s oceans; but others proffer the enigmatic inner workings of the human mind. How does this twisted, textured network of tissue and nerves instantly provide both involuntary survival processes, and extraordinary artistic and linguistic expression?
Researchers at the University of New Mexico’s MIND Imaging Center are unlocking doors to the body’s most mysterious organ – the brain. The imaging center is an integral component of the MIND (Mental Illness and Neuroscience Discovery) Institute, a unique scientific consortium headquartered at UNM between Harvard University, the University of Minnesota, the University of New Mexico, Los Alamos National Laboratory and other leading research facilities.
New, State of the Art Facilities
Housed in the recently dedicated Pete and Nancy Domenici Hall on UNM’s north campus, the MIND Imaging Center is an unparalleled assembly of neuroimaging technologies that creates virtual images of brain structure and function with unprecedented detail. By employing structural magnetic resonance (sMR), functional magnetic resonance (fMR), magnetoencephalography (MEG), magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS) and optical imaging, researchers can study in real-time the flow of chemicals, electricity, oxygen and blood in the brain under “normal” conditions, and when confronted with illness or injury.
“There truly is no other facility like this in the world,” remarks Dr. Nancy Andreasen, director of the MIND Institute and internationally recognized expert on mental illness and schizophrenia. “With the unflappable support of Senator Pete Domenici and so many others, we are both poised and determined to fully understand the effects of devastating disease and trauma in the brain and how best to prevent, diagnose and treat such conditions.”
Science To Benefit Society
“The MIND Imaging Center represents a bold new age in the astounding advances to come in brain research,” offers Dr. R. Philip Eaton, UNM executive vice president emeritus for Health Sciences. “Imagine the public health implications of understanding and treating the chemical and physiological characteristics of such a pervasive mental illness as depression, heartbreaking degenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s Disease, or acute brain injuries like stroke.”
Tasked with mapping a seemingly infinite network of brain anatomy, synapses and activity centers, UNM neuroscientists already have made some startling discoveries regarding intelligence and the brain’s response to pain.
Ongoing intelligence studies conducted by UNM Neuropsychologist Rex Jung, Ph.D., have revealed very distinctive structural and chemical signatures that predict performance on IQ tests. These neurologic processes, which differ between males and females, could lead to vastly different treatment protocols for brain-injured men and women.
“We’re finding that male and female brains are modeled very differently,” Jung asserts. “This likely affects the way we think, the effects of disease and the way we recover from injuries to the brain. Such research data ultimately could lead to earlier diagnoses of brain disorders in males and females, as well as more effective and precise treatments for each gender.”
While calibrating an MRS machine, UNM researcher Paul Mullins, Ph.D., recognized a key neurotransmitter communicating pain in the brain. His technician was being scanned when she experienced a pinch, and Mullins thought he saw a spike in the brain’s release of glutamate.
A New Understanding
To further investigate the brain’s response to pain, Mullins introduced “painful” stimuli to subjects by placing ice on their foot for 10-minute increments. The introduction of pain consistently provoked a sharp, dynamic increase in glutamate concentrations.
“Glutamate is clearly a major player in how the brain processes acute pain,” contends Mullins. “We are expanding our research to determine its role in chronic pain – considered to be the fifth vital sign by many medical professionals – which negatively affects brain tissue; effectively shrinking regions of the brain.”
According to Mullins, this is the first time researchers have been able to view in detail the chemical response in the brain of a subject suffering pain, providing a new opportunity to measure such responses.
A new understanding of how pain manifests itself in the brain could prompt development of new analgesics that manipulate levels of glutamate, as well as new treatments for traumatic injuries and chronic conditions that will improve recovery and prevent brain tissue damage.
These are but two samplings of the incredible work being conducted at UNM’s MIND Imaging Center for the MIND Institute. There are numerous MIND researches from all reaches of the planet developing hyper-speed imaging software, classifying and collating research results among the partners, and developing new research ideas and protocols; all the while ensuring collaboration among the various MIND Institute sites throughout the U.S.
This is an exciting time at the University of New Mexico as extraordinary research talent from around the globe gravitates toward Albuquerque to work in this world class facility. As these scientists probe deeper into the uncharted recesses of the human brain, the hope is for a greater understanding not only of how this mysterious organ functions, malfunctions and heals, but also how it directs personality, creativity and human expression.