Access our COVID-19 Well-Being Toolkit and Resources

Signup for our Newsletter!

Sign up for our newsletter to receive the latest news and updates.

Reading the Mind: New Lab Sharpens Brain Imagery
March 30, 2001

Image by David Nevala

A new integrated imaging laboratory will give scientists unparalleled views of brain function, helping bring highly informative color and shape to once-ethereal concepts about the nature of emotions, learning and mental disorders.

The $10 million W.M. Keck Laboratory for Functional Brain Imaging and Behavior, which opens in April at UW–Madison, is unique in the world for focusing cutting-edge imaging technologies, each with different capabilities, on issues relating to brain activity and behavior. Linked with the Waisman Center and Medical School’s HealthEmotions Research Institute, the new laboratory builds on more than a decade of emotion research at the university.

“Brain imaging research is turning the fields of psychology and psychiatry upside down,” says Keck director Richard Davidson, a professor of both disciplines. “We have gone from divining theories about brain function to literally seeing the function of the brain unfold in three-dimensional color on exquisitely detailed images of the activation patterns of the living brain at work.”

The 17,000-square-foot facility comprises the first floor of a major addition to the Waisman Center, a national center for the study of development and developmental disabilities. The lab will include home offices for more than a dozen faculty and staff, while also being a resource for more than 50 neuroscience faculty across campus.

Centerpieces of the facility will be two machines featuring the most sophisticated, non-invasive medical imaging technology- functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and positron emission tomography (PET). The two technologies have strengths that, when combined, provide scientists with richer and more useful information than ever before, Davidson says. For example, fMRI shows different structures of the brain as it works, while PET can help track biochemical activity in the brain. Other technologies will be used that help pinpoint brain electrical activity.

“We expect this new laboratory will greatly help us identify brain mechanisms involved in emotions that are responsible for illness as well as good health,” says HERI Director Ned Kalin. “This information should spur new advances in preventing and treating mental disorders, as well as other problems affecting cognitive abilities.”

HERI projects already under way are looking at brain imaging profiles related to anxiety disorders, depression and the effect of antidepressants. The scientists will use the technology to expand their investigations of positive emotions and their relationships to health, studying, for example, people who show high levels of resilience and those who practice meditation.

The imaging techniques can be used to track the physical changes that occur in the brain resulting from sustained training and learning, Davidson says, helping show how the brain is “plastic” and capable of overcoming diseases or deficiencies.

The researchers also plan future brain imaging investigations of autism, an often severe cognitive disorder diagnosed in children that affects an estimated 400,000 Americans. Other candidates for research are Parkinson’s Disease and Alzheimer’s Disease, both progressive neuro-degenerative disorders that alter motor control and memory.

Davidson says the lab will provide a direct tie-in to the Waisman Center’s many related projects on developmental disabilities – and a way of measuring the effectiveness of treatments. The center draws together more than 500 faculty and staff from 27 departments at the university, and its new $25 million research tower includes new wings devoted to cell therapy, gene therapy and other clinical frontiers.

A testament to the national uniqueness of the laboratory, Davidson says, is that it has helped attract a number of new, top-flight neuroscience faculty to UW–Madison. Mark Seidenberg, currently a psychology and neuroscience professor at the University of Southern California, is one of the nation’s leading scientists on language development. Andrew Alexander, a UW–Madison assistant professor of medical physics and psychiatry, will serve as the lab’s MRI physicist. He is developing ways to use MRI to visualize connections between different brain regions.

Andrew Roberts, also of medical physics and psychiatry, has been integrally involved in equipment specifications and installation at the lab. Another recent hire is Paul Whalen, a brain imager and neuroscientist from Harvard who is now a UW assistant professor of psychiatry and psychology.

The MRI scanner, powered by a 16-ton magnet, was supported by a $1.25 million grant from the W.M. Keck Foundation in Los Angeles. The PET scanner was previously used by UW–Madison faculty and was transferred to the new facility from the Middleton Veterans Administration Hospital.

Brian Mattmiller

Enjoy this article?

Sign up for our newsletter!