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Its 30 ton magnet bespeaks the might of the newest research scanner at the San Francisco VA Medical Center, and so does its name: Magnetom 7 Tesla.

Tesla is a measure of magnetic field strength. The imaging tool generates a field strength that is 150,000 times stronger than the Earth’s magnetic field, and it is twice as strong as the best MRI scanners used anywhere for patient care today, said Pratik Mukherjee, MD, PhD, director of the Center for Imaging of Neurodegenerative Diseases (CIND) at the San Francisco VA Medical Center (SFVAMC).

Equally impressive is the 7T MRI’s precision and speed. Coils, smaller and more sensitive than in other MRIs, pick up signals from molecules in the brain to help give researchers exquisite images. The 7T can capture changes in cellular layers in the gray matter of the cerebral cortex – sheaths and areas thinner than a dime – where memory, attention, perception and other functions are controlled.

“It can perform functional imaging of activity in the whole brain in less than a second,” said Mukherjee, a Veterans Health Research Institute (NCIRE)-supported scientist and University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) professor of radiology and bioengineering.

This 7T version is the first at any VA facility in the country and the most advanced MRI system on the West Coast.

Its stationing at SFVAMC and CIND since 2014 is significant. The Magnetom 7 Tesla has the potential to detect the invisible wounds caused by traumatic brain injury (TBI), post-traumatic stress (PTS), Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and other neurocognitive disorders that strike Veterans at rates much higher than in the general population. Among Veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, estimates of incidence range as high as 30 percent for PTS and 20 percent for TBI.

Scientists at SFVAMC and CIND – with its arsenal of state-of-the art imaging technology— are leaders in research to detect and treat these conditions. They have been at the cusp of identifying biomarkers and their roles in the development of brain diseases affecting Veterans.  Now, the 7T will allow researchers to view details in the brain that before could be seen only at autopsy, said Mukherjee.

“Progress in deciphering the human brain’s activity and circuitry should lead to revolutionary new diagnostic tools and potentially new therapies,” he said. “The 7T brings research and advanced technology closer to the patients – Veterans -- who will benefit,” he said.

Research with the 7T at the SFVAMC could reach the general population, too. Mukherjee is part of a team of investigators from UC Berkeley, Harvard and Duke Universities, who in 2014 received a National Institutes of Health grant through President Obama’s Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies Initiative. The goal of the joint SFVAMC, Berkeley, Harvard and Duke project is to increase the speed and spatial resolution of today’s most powerful MRI scanners.

In addition to detection and therapies for diseases that disproportionately affect Veterans, the research is applicable to epilepsy, autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and other conditions.

“By being among the first to adopt ultra-high field MRI, the SFVAMC will help blaze the trail to the next generation of medical imaging technology,” said Mukherjee.

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March 16, 2017