Sharp pictures and new insights on grey matter

February 23, 1996

Oxford University is maintaining its position as a world leader in research with two new ventures. Alan Thomson reports on the go-ahead for a magnetic resonance brain scanner

Oxford University is forging ahead in brain disease research after winning approval for a new centre incorporating one of the United Kingdom's two most powerful magnetic scanners.

The Centre for Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging of the Brain has been given the green light by the local planning authority. Construction at the John Radcliffe Hospital is due to begin soon and the first experiments are due to start next year.

At the heart of the centre is the Pounds 1.5 million scanner which produces high-definition moving pictures of brain activity. The surrounding building, which will be separate from the main hospital, will cost about Pounds 1 million.

The machine is unusual in that it has a 3 tesla magnet which is, along with one at Nottingham, the most powerful in the UK, being twice the strength of scanners such as the one at the Maudsley Hospital in South London.

This extra magnetic power means that it is more sensitive and produces more clearly defined images of the brain: helping scientists locate areas of dysfunction. It is also far safer than conventional CT scans which rely on X-rays.

Oxford's clinical neurology professor, John Newsom-Davis, a member of the centre's directorate, said: "This provides us with an entirely safe, non-invasive way of studying brain health and diseases in a way that would not have been possible before. It is exciting technology which will provide critical insights into disease mechanisms such as epilepsy, schizophrenia and strokes."

Capital funding for the public-private initiative has come from the university, the Medical Research Council, Glaxo-Wellcome Pharmaceuticals, the Wolfson Foundation and the EP Abraham Trust.

The MRC is to provide Pounds 2.7 million to fund research over the next five years into brain disorders, including a major stroke research programme.

It is envisaged that the machine will be used for clinical research not only by Oxford University, the MRC and Glaxo-Wellcome but by other universities and perhaps commercial companies.

Academics from ten Oxford departments will be joining a collaborative group which will develop the interdisciplinary programme of the centre. Its director will be Paul Matthews, formerly assistant professor of neurology and human genetics at McGill University in Canada, and recent recipient of an MRC clinical research readership in neurology.

Dr Matthews said: "Clinical and basic researchers so often work in different worlds. An exciting feature of the new centre is that it will provide an environment where they can work side by side, sharing tools to solve the problems of brain disease."

Other members of the directorate include Professor Alan Cowey, director of the MRC Research Centre in Brain and Behaviour at Oxford; and Professor George Radda, head of the department of biochemistry and honorary director of the MRC Clinical and Biochemical Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy Unit.

* Nottingham University has received Pounds 1.3 million to establish a centre applying high-tech computer imaging techniques to industry, commerce and medicine.

The Centre for Industrial and Medical Informatics will be funded with Pounds 500,000 from the European Regional Development Fund and the rest from sponsors from the private and public sectors.

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