New Zealand superconductor-based magnets to support neuroscience research

12 Oct 2017 - 12:35:20 in Research
Victoria University ’s Robinson Research Institute is part of an international project awarded funding to build a smaller and more mobile MRI system that will support neurological research.

The project, led by the internationally acclaimed Centre for Magnetic Resonance Research at the University of Minnesota Medical School, has received $(US)10.8 million in funding from the National Institutes of Health in the United States to help develop the system, which will be ready for clinical trials by 2021.

Researchers at the Robinson Research Institute, based in the Faculty of Engineering, are recognised worldwide as pioneers and leaders in high temperature superconductivity (HTS) research. This technology will form a critical part of a key aspect of the project—removing the need for liquid helium in MRI machines and thereby reducing the energy and space needs of the machines.

The Robinson Research Institute will receive $(US)1.7 million of the total funding, in recognition of the huge potential the system holds for increasing our understanding of the functioning of the human brain.

Ben Parkinson, senior engineer at the Robinson Research Institute, says: “By using our high-temperature superconductor magnet technology in combination with technology from our collaborators at University of Minnesota, Columbia, Yale, and University of Sao Paulo, we’re building a brain imaging MRI system that is more like a motorcycle helmet. It fits over the subject’s head, allowing them to sit comfortably with a normal field of view during the MRI exam, yet it can just be plugged into the wall and use a normal power supply.”

He says the challenge with current MRI systems is that they require a great deal of infrastructure and resources to build, operate and maintain.

“The standard MRI machine you see in a hospital requires 1,700 litres of liquid helium to keep the magnet at a low enough temperature to work and produce high quality images,” says Mr Parkinson

“This creates a number of challenges—a lot of infrastructure, energy and space is required to run the machine. In addition, liquid helium is also not only expensive, but in short supply, so we need to look for alternatives.

“An MRI machine is one of the best tools currently available to study neurology. However they put the patient in an unnatural and confined space, where they can’t respond to stimuli in a normal way, and the range of activities they can perform is very limited.”