Neuroimaging Center Established with Unique Addition

Auburn University is now home to the first field-installed Siemens MAGNETOM Terra.X 7 Tesla Magnetic Resonance Imaging scanner, and the university has established a Neuroimaging Center to emphasize the addition of the one-of-a-kind machine.

A major research center within the Samuel Ginn College of Engineering, the newly formed Neuroimaging Center — formerly known as the Auburn University MRI Center — will allow the university to expand its groundbreaking brain research and open the door for clinical use, pending expected approval by the Food and Drug Administration.

A monitor shows an MRI scan of a brain

The $9 million 7T scanner, located inside the newly named Thomas Walter MRI Building at the Auburn University Research Park, provides dramatically sharper and higher resolution images compared to those of the university’s previous 7T research device. Additionally, with dedicated radiofrequency sodium imaging coils and parallel transmit technology, the new scanner offers expanded and faster imaging capabilities.

“Today, we can say the best MRI scanner in the world is sitting here in the Research Park in Auburn,” said Dr. Steve Taylor, senior vice president for research and economic development. “Impactful, multi-disciplinary research remains one of the foundations of our rich history as a university, and the door is now open to creative explorations into neuroscience that neither we, nor peer institutions, could previously pursue,” said Taylor. “I’m excited to watch researchers from across campus take advantage of this powerful resource.”

Approximately 90% of the images processed at the center focus on the brain, and clinical use will allow the university to expand its research on conditions such as epilepsy, muscular dystrophy and other disorders, said Dr. Tom Denney, director of the Auburn University Neuroimaging Center, who also serves as the Mr. and Mrs. Bruce Donnellan & Family Professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

“In terms of biomedical research, this is one of those things that takes us to that next level,” Denney said. “Once we receive full FDA approval, that’s going to be huge for our plans moving forward.”

“In addition to being able to provide opportunities for researchers like me to study disorders and even brain connectivity at a new level, this new scanner also contributes to the fact that we can clinically assess people in different ways,” said Dr. Jennifer Robinson, principal investigator at the Auburn University Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Laboratory. “It has tremendous impacts for folks with epilepsy or Parkinson’s where we can do imaging that we couldn’t do before. That’s a tremendous asset for the state of Alabama, and especially for our area. Those things — both the research aspect and the clinical aspect — make it a pivotal resource.”

Seyedeh Nasim Adnani stands next to an MRI machine

The center’s previous 7T system, installed in 2012 and removed in 2023, was an investigational-only device, where subjects were scanned for research purposes only.
“There will be plenty of physicians who will want to send their patients here to be scanned on the new 7T,” Denney said. “People need to have MRI scans for numerous purposes as there are many clinical questions to answer. If a question can be answered with a 3T, then that respective hospital will more than likely have that equipment. But if the 3T does not answer the question — as our 7T provides deeper and clearer images — then those patients would benefit from our device.”

A stark difference between the old and new 7T scanners involves parallel transmit technology and sodium imaging capability.

“With our old 7T system, if we did an MRI scan of the brain around the ear canals or sinuses, the image would reveal a signal drop and you wouldn’t receive uniform coverage of the brain,” Denney said. “That’s because we had only one transmit channel, like a flashlight inside a large room with only one beam. By comparison, our new Terra.X 7T provides us with eight beams of light and transmits channels that illuminate the brain and provide a uniform image.

From the left: Seyedeh Nasim Adnani, a Ph.D. candidate, discusses brain scan images with Dr. Tom Denney at the Auburn University Neuroimaging Center.

“Sodium imaging technology is also important because it can measure how much sodium is in your brain regionally and identify abnormalities,” Denney added.
The university’s Siemens Verio open-core 3T scanner, installed in 2010, remains on site and will continue to be utilized.

A gift from Auburn Engineering alumnus Thomas Walter (‘55, engineering physics) and his wife Jean (‘57, education), paved the way for the addition of the new machine to the 45,000-square foot building, and in turn the university has named the facility in his honor as the Thomas Walter MRI Research Building.

“We are certainly honored and humbled to have alumni and friends like Tom and Jean Walter,” Denney said. “If it wasn’t for them, we wouldn’t have the 7T, and we are indebted to them for their dedication and commitment to Auburn. Through this cutting-edge technology, we are fortunate to have the opportunity to show how we can utilize their generosity for the betterment of mankind through impactful research.”

New research explorations already underway include, but are not limited to:

Dr. Meredith Reid, assistant professor in electrical and computer engineering, who is exploring post-traumatic stress disorder biomarkers in senior adults via spectroscopy.

Dr. Jennifer Robinson, professor in psychological sciences, who is comparing brain connectivity between healthy populations with mental illness with a focus on the interaction between cognition and emotions.

Dr. Adil Bashir, associate professor in electrical and computer engineering, who is studying muscle and brain energy production capacity on the cells and determining mitochondrial metabolic homeostasis by utilization of phosphorus spectroscopy.

Dr. Gopikrishna Deshpande, professor in electrical and computer engineering, who is examining how artificial intelligence can be used to predict brain disorders and human/animal behavior using information from brain networks obtained from MRI.

Dr. Doug Martin, director of the Scott-Ritchey Research Center and professor of anatomy, physiology and pharmacology, who is measuring the effect of gene therapy for Tay-Sachs disease in animal models using magnetic resonance imaging and spectroscopy.