Scientists from the university and the Kennedy Krieger Institute have collaborated to create a state-of-the-art center for brain imaging that has aroused a horde of ideas across the state of Maryland for mapping the human mind.
On Jan. 11, just days before the new imaging technology arrived for installation, a crowd of physicists, radiologists, psychiatrists and neuroscientists stood elbow-to-elbow to share their hopes and applaud projects that should expand the frontiers of their disciplines.
The gathering created a festive air in an auditorium of the Houck Building at the School of Medicine. As the room filled with researchers from the University of Maryland, Kennedy Krieger and Hopkins departments of Psychology, Radiology, Neuroscience, Psychiatry, Biomedical Engineering and Mathematical Sciences, it was apparent that the level of anticipation was high.
Billed as a symposium on brain research, the event was scheduled to introduce a very serious, very eclectic group of scientists to the kinds of projects that could occur inside the new facility--everything from studying the effects of alcohol on driving skills to mapping the pathways of human memory (see accompanying story below).
But in their standing-room-only crowd, the scientists seemed more in the mood to celebrate.
"I always thought this would happen some day," observed Mike Kraut, an assistant professor in the Department of Radiology, as he began his presentation on functional imaging of vision and language. "But I thought I'd be in a nursing home when it did."
The idea for building a functional imaging center was born at the start of this decade when a handful of people at Hopkins and Kennedy Krieger recognized that a new technology called fMRI, or functional magnetic resonance imaging, would soon revolutionize the field of neuroscience. Unlike already existing equipment for mind/brain research, fMRI can create images of brain processes in near real-time, pinpoint neuronal activity with accuracy and be used repeatedly over time without threatening human health.
Gary Goldstein, president of Kennedy Krieger, and Guy McKhann, who directs the Mind/Brain Institute at Hopkins, envisioned a place where fMRI could be used for basic research that would not only benefit children with developmental disabilities but also galvanize talented scientists across the state. McKhann unified the support of the Hopkins community, and Goldstein raised the funds and sacrificed the library at Kennedy Krieger to house a state-of-the-art center.
"The most important day, however, came in December 1997," recalled Peter Van Zijl, a professor of radiology. "That was when the F.M. Kirby Foundation agreed to fund the center." Today, Van Zijl serves as director of what will be called the F.M. Kirby Research Center for Functional Brain Imaging.
A few other functional imaging centers exist in the United States, but the Kirby center will be unique because it is the only one specifically designed to be "child-friendly" and strictly dedicated to research rather than clinical purposes. Another characteristic that makes the center distinctive, Goldstein said, is that one of the major goals is to stimulate collaborations among scientists from diverse disciplines and "encourage an interactive group."
The potential for interaction has already spread beyond the confines of the Hopkins campus, where faculty from eight different departments are lining up potential projects to implement at the center. Scientists from the University of Maryland at College Park and at Baltimore County also have been drawn into the group with projects related to hypertension, tone recognition and human memory.
More than two dozen scientists presented inspiring synopses of their research goals over a period of three and a half hours that day. With such keen interest, it seems sure that the new center will see a lot of use once it opens formally in May.
Even for those who have never relied on the technology, the excitement is infectious.
"I haven't done any functional imaging yet," said Howard Egeth, chairman of the Hopkins Psychology Department, as he stood before his new colleagues. "So I will tell you what I'm interested in. And if you have any ideas of how I might use functional MRI, catch me over the coffee break."