NIH funds new brain imaging center at San Francisco VA Medical Center

By Camille Mojica Rey

A $2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to use towards the purchase of the latest in brain-imaging equipment has been received by the San Francisco VA Medical Center.

The new high-field MRI/MR spectroscopy system will be the centerpiece of a new center for the imaging of neurodegenerative diseases, including Alzheimer’s disease, epilepsy, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Gulf War syndrome and more, said Michael Weiner, MD, who will serve as the new center’s director.

“This is going to be the only high-field system in the world that is focused exclusively on neurodegenerative diseases,” said Weiner, who is director of the Magnetic Resonance Unit at San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Center and a professor of radiology, medicine, psychiatry and neurology at the University of California, San Francisco.

“This system will allow us to see smaller structures in the brain,” Weiner said. The system measures different chemicals in the brain non-invasively and without the use of dyes or tracers. For example, it can measure the levels of glutamate, the neurotransmitter suspected of playing a role in Alzheimer’s disease, amytropic lateral sclerosis (ALS or Lou Geherig’s disease), and Parkinson’s disease. “This is a unique resource,” Weiner said.

The 4 Tesla high-field MRI/MR spectroscopy system is three times more powerful than the standard type of MRI in common use today. It will be used in particular for the early detection of Alzheimers-the most common disease of aging veterans and the elderly in general. The system will also be used to monitor the effectiveness of treatment of the disease.

In addition to patient treatment, the center will conduct research expected to advance the field significantly by testing the newest drug treatments developed specifically for Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative disorders.

The $2 million grant comes from NIH’s highly competitive Research Resources fund and will go towards the cost of the $3.4 million high-field magnet system. The NIH reportedly received nearly 50 applications for MRIs, and this instrument is one of the few awarded, Weiner said.

The new center, which is expected to open in late 2003, will be a joint Program of the San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Center and the Northern California Institute for Research and Education (NCIRE). It will cost a total of $4 million, with NCIRE providing the balance of the funds needed to purchase the MRI/MR spectroscopy system. Funds needed to get the center up and running will be provided by the San Francisco VA Medical Center.

Funding for the center is being managed by the NCIRE. The institute is one of the fastest growing medical research groups in the nation. Founded in 1988, NCIRE now manages more than $30 million in funding from organizations such as the National Institutes of Health, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and the National Science Foundation. Based at the San Francisco VA Medical Center, NCIRE is the largest of the 85 congressionally authorized VA research corporations.