Cardiff University Brain Research Imaging Centre (CUBRIC) is now at work seeking new insights into the deepest mysteries of the human mind. A specialist team at the £10 million new centre is using some of the most sophisticated brain imaging equipment in the world to probe our thoughts, our memories and our emotions.
University staff are invited to tour The Cardiff University Brain Research Imaging Centre (CUBRIC) on Thursday 16 November. The Centre has organised a tour day for interested staff members across the University who wish to come and have a look around at the facilities on offer.
There will be four tours available during the day at 10am, 11am, 2pm and 3pm, which are limited in number due to safety, and must be pre-booked. These will be on a first come first served basis.
There will also be the opportunity to look round the newly established Experimental MRI Centre (EMRIC) at Cardiff School of Biosciences - please specify if you are interested in this when you book.
Researchers will study a huge range of mental functions, including the processes which allow us to learn, remember, visualise, reason and interact socially. By better understanding the way the healthy brain works, new approaches may open to treating disorders such as schizophrenia, multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease and even to tackling violent behaviour.
"This is a unique project in which psychology is taking the lead," says Professor Peter Halligan, a leading cognitive neuroscientist from Cardiff ’s School of Psychology. Professor Halligan, who helped secure around £8 million of government funding for the facility, adds: "A few other universities have this type of equipment, but it is usually located in medical schools or in the physical sciences."
One distinctive aspect of the work of Cardiff’s researchers is that they will spend much of their time scanning people who are not ill; ultimately to improve understanding of everyday brain functions and what happens when things go wrong. The experts will be able to take on projects across a wide range of disciplines, so the facility could hold the key to treating any number of conditions, from strokes through to Alzheimer’s disease or long-term depression.
"You can only really explain disease or injury when you know how the normal system operates," Professor Halligan explains. "We will be looking at the reasoning and belief processes of normal patients. We’re also interested in the rehabilitation of damaged brain systems, but in Cardiff we’re working on the premise that we want to know how the brain system functions in the first place."
Understanding what the brain is doing
The new Centre, which was opened at the end of March by Nobel Laureate for medicine, Professor Sir Peter Mansfield, will also look at brains which perform outstandingly well. Most top sportsmen have a brain that allows them to perform certain key tasks consistently well. This, according to Professor Halligan, is what we call a skill. "If a sportsman has a particular skill — for example, Beckham or Jonny Wilkinson at taking penalties — the brain goes through the same set of processes every time. This is why these people acquire such a level of consistency in the way they perform," he says.
This is where Cardiff ’s state-of-the-art brain imaging technology comes into its own. By gaining a better insight into what skill-programmed brains are doing at the peak of their performance, we will be better placed to intervene when things go wrong. Researchers will be able to study what happens when there is optimal performance in a certain area. As a result, the medical profession may gain a better understanding of how to treat a whole range of conditions — from epilepsy to back pain. "The technology will give us a better understanding of what the brain is or isn’t doing in certain situations."
The Cardiff Centre is one of the first in the UK to combine the use of Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) and Magnetoencephalography (MEG) solely for research. Both of these brain imaging technologies will be devoted to a research programme likely to encompass a wide range of schools across the University. The fMRI equipment works by generating high-resolution, 3D-images of the working brain, while MEG delivers a precise, accurate real-time picture of what is going on at each stage. According to Professor Halligan, this powerful combination of equipment will deliver new insights into the brain in action — whether the research team is testing co-ordination and vision against a benchmark or trying to discover what determines certain types of emotions, attitudes or beliefs.
"Another advantage of the equipment is that it uses non-invasive methods that enhance the safety of what we are doing," he says. These non-invasive methods use magnets rather than radiation, which means the research can be extended to all types of participant, including potentially vulnerable groups such as pregnant mothers and children. Professor Halligan predicts that the areas of study will cover "everything from visual and auditory perception to memory, learning, speech and reasoning".
As advanced as any in Europe or North America
By operating state of the art equipment, Cardiff will attract world leading research staff, projects and partnerships, notably with private sector organisations interested in this type of work. For example, links will be built with pharmaceutical, biotech and other medical research companies.
"A number of these will be very interested in the type of equipment we are installing," Professor Halligan says. "The MEG scanner, for example, allows researchers to examine all the brain areas involved in a task such as reading in order to support new approaches to learning difficulties and other mental disabilities."
In addition to the School of Psychology, other disciplines will be making use of the equipment in the merged institution. These are likely to include behavioural neurosciences, cognitive science, education, linguistics, biology, psychiatry, neurosurgery, genetics and rehabilitative medicine.
"At Cardiff University we are creating a facility as advanced as any of its kind in Europe and North America — a facility that offers new opportunities for collaboration across a range of disciplines," Professor Halligan says.
In leading the change, he describes Cognitive Psychology — in essence understanding the mind and how we know what we know — as the testing area linking together many of the other important aspects of neurological and psychological theory. "For example, if we want to help a stroke victim walk again we have to understand how their brain functioned before the stroke. The same applies to people with learning difficulties, depression and different types of violent behaviour. "
Professor Halligan is keen to ensure that participants undergoing scans are relaxed about the procedures involved. "This is why we’re also building a mock scanner in addition to the real thing," he says. "For some people an fMRI scanner can be a claustrophobic environment and we need to ensure that subjects are acclimatised before the actual experiment begins."
With safety a priority, all those involved in the research will need to be made metal-free. So objects such as coins, spectacle frames and even belt buckles will need to be removed or replaced with non-metal alternatives.
"Potentially it’s a dangerous piece of equipment that could lead to injury if the right precautions are not taken," says Professor Halligan. "Any ferrous metal object on or in a person’s body will move around. This is why we will take great care to ensure that everyone is free from such objects before we start the scanning process."
Another important reason to get things right first time is the expense. Running this type of scanning
equipment costs hundreds of pounds an hour. "In many ways the Centre will have to run like a business," explains Halligan. "All members within the University will get subsidised use of the equipment, but it can also be made available to external organisations, such as drug companies that want to carry out trials on a new product."
Learn more about CUBRIC
It's all in your head