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U Illinois ACES MRI.jpg University of Illinois

New animal MRI expands pig neuroscience capabilities

University of Illinois researchers to use higher-resolution MRI to better study brain development of pigs.

The University of Illinois College of Agricultural, Consumer & Environmental Sciences (ACES), along with a gift from the Roy J. Carver Charitable Trust and contributions from 17 other academic units at the University of Illinois, are funding the purchase of a Bruker 9.4 Tesla preclinical animal magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) system.

ACES is contributing $200,000 toward the $6 million MRI project, with $831,000 coming from the Carver Trust, the announcement said. Construction is expected to start this fall, and the MRI will be installed next fall at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science & Technology.

ACES researchers, including Ryan Dilger and Rodney Johnson from the department of animal sciences, have used Beckman’s imaging technology for years to advance the field of neuroscience. Along with Brad Sutton, bioengineering professor and technical director of the Biomedical Imaging Center (BIC), they have established the pig as an ideal animal model for rapid translation of neuroscience findings to humans due to the similarity between pigs' and people's brains.

“The University of Illinois will build upon the storied history of using the domestic pig as a biomedical model with this new equipment. Research in the College of ACES has proven the benefits of using the pig to study genetics, physiology, nutrition and the overall microbiota/gut/brain axis, and this is leading to real progress when combined with bioengineering and clinical strengths of our institution,” Dilger said.

The new MRI will deliver higher-resolution imaging capabilities, enabling researchers to analyze more intricate structures and processes in the brain.

Dilger, Johnson and Sutton have already created a complete brain atlas for the domesticated pig ( using existing MRI technologies at Beckman, the university said. With this freely available resource, users are able to apply the atlas to pig brain images captured at their institution to quickly and accurately identify more than 20 discrete brain regions in a standardized imaging space.

“Our atlas has been accessed by over 350 unique users since it was made available, and the improved resolution in the upcoming second generation of the atlas is astounding. I envision we’ll update it again using the 9.4 T MRI scanner, making the atlas that much more accurate and useful to biomedical researchers,” Dilger added.

Dilger, Johnson, Sutton and other Illinois collaborators have made significant discoveries related to human health using BIC's existing MRI equipment, including:

* Pinpointing how components of breast milk and infant formula influence healthy brain development in young animals and developing infants;

* Developing links between brain function and non-invasive imaging measures of brain structure and composition;

* Modeling healthy brain development in pigs and humans to provide chronological comparisons of crucial structural milestones to allow direct transfer of findings between these two related species, and

* Developing new imaging methods that enable mapping of distributions of chemicals in the brain, methods to examine blood flow in the brain and methods that enable measurement of the mechanical properties of the brain.

An MRI scanner provides a completely safe and non-invasive assessment of the anatomy and structure in animals. It is a tool that allows findings from animal research to effectively increase the understanding of both human and animal physiological structure and function, the university explained. Use of MRI allows researchers to expand their knowledge of tissue structure and development in a non-invasive manner.

The Roy J. Carver Charitable Trust, located in Muscatine, Iowa, is one of the largest private foundations in the state of Iowa. The Carver Trust supports biomedical and scientific research, scholarships and programs addressing the educational and recreational needs of youth.

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