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BRAIN research at WVU awarded $1.5 million

WVU-led team one of first to receive NIH support, White House recognition

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – In its first wave of funding awards, a new presidential project aimed at revolutionizing our understanding of the human brain has pledged its support to a group of researchers led by West Virginia University faculty working to change the future of brain imaging. The White House announced that WVU has been awarded more than $1.5 million from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) through the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative, established by President Barack Obama to accelerate the development and application of innovative imaging technologies.
The WVU team is developing a wearable, mobile molecular positron emission tomography (PET) imaging device capable of providing unprecedented insight into the metabolism and cellular processes of the brain, all while performing everyday activities, such as walking, playing a piano, or socializing. While traditional imaging techniques require a person being scanned to remain as still as possible, the helmet-like tool is wearable while in motion.

“The PET helmet, conceived at WVU and supported in its early stages by the Department of Radiology and the WVU Center for Neuroscience, can open new vistas into neural activity across the brain by permitting brain scans to occur in more natural settings,” George Spirou, Ph.D., director of the WVU Center for Neuroscience, said.  “This grant is also a validation of the quality of neuroscience research ongoing at WVU. Our relatively small program of about 50 neuroscience laboratories demonstrated its caliber and collaborative spirit in achieving this award.”

In addition to allowing freedom of movement, the PET helmet, or Ambulatory Microdose PET, will require far less of the radioactive tracer material currently used in traditional PET imaging.

“Imagine being able to look at the brain of a stroke patient engaging in rehab exercises or to determine how and why an autistic person’s brain reacts differently during active social situations,” Julie Brefczynski-Lewis, Ph.D., research assistant professor in the WVU School of Medicine Department of Physiology and Pharmacology, explained. “The ambulatory aspect is only part of the story; because it’s so close to the head, we will be able to use a much lower and safer dose.”

Dr. Brefczynski-Lewis added that the PET helmet will also allow higher resolution imaging of rarer types of brain cells, like the pyramidal cell types implicated in healthy aging and Alzheimer’s disease. As the device will be intended first as a research tool, results of future studies will have a direct impact on the understanding and treatment of many neurologic conditions, such as dementias, stroke, traumatic brain injury, and depression.

Last year, President Obama launched the BRAIN Initiative as a large-scale effort to equip researchers with the fundamental support necessary for treating a wide variety of brain disorders. Four federal agencies — NIH, the National Science Foundation, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency —  committed more than $110 million to the Initiative for fiscal year 2014. Planning for the NIH component of the BRAIN initiative is guided by the long-term scientific plan, “BRAIN 2025: A Scientific Vision,” that details seven high-priority research areas.

“How do the billions of cells in our brain control our thoughts, feelings, and movements? That’s ultimately what the BRAIN Initiative is about,” Thomas R. Insel, M.D., director of the NIH’s National Institute of Mental Health, said. “Understanding this will greatly help us meet the rising challenges that brain disorders pose for the future health of the nation.”

The multidisciplinary group of researchers includes faculty from other major universities along with General Electric engineers. Joining  primary investigator Brefczynski-Lewis on the PET helmet research team are co-investigators Alexander Stolin, Ph.D., WVU;  Stan Majewski, Ph.D., University of Virginia (formerly of WVU); Ravi Manjeshwar, Ph.D., General Electric; Sergei Dolinsky, General Electric; Jinyi Qi, Ph.D., University of California, Davis; and Paul Kinahan, Ph.D., of University of Washington.

Video explaining the PET helmet technology and concept is available at

To learn about the WVU Center for Neuroscience, visit

For more information about NIH and its programs, visit

Photo caption: Julie Brefczynski-Lewis, Ph.D., right, demonstrates the mobility of an early version of the PET imaging helmet now in development at WVU as co-investigator Alexander Stolin, Ph.D., left, examines a PET scan of a brain.