When the Centre for Functional and Metabolic Mapping (CFMM) first opened its doors at Robarts Research Institute in 1996, you could stand in front of the building and see the reflection of the hospital on one side and the university on the other. At the time, it was revolutionary – a cutting-edge magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) research facility on the doorsteps of both patient care and academics.
“You need a facility with access to patients and doctors if you want to have clinical impact, and you need access to the academic side to answer the basic science questions,” said Ravi Menon, a Schulich Medicine & Dentistry professor and director and founder of the CFMM. “We are right in the middle of that; we are a bridge between the hospital and the university.”
In 1994, Menon was recruited from the University of Minnesota to establish the high-field imaging facility at Robarts with the aim of helping answer some of the world’s most pressing medical questions.
During the past two decades, clinicians and researchers at Western and abroad have used the ultra-high field MRI to probe the anatomy, function and metabolism within the brain and body, often at very temporal and spatial resolution. The technology has been used to explore the basis of diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and multiple sclerosis, as well as provide a unique look into what exactly is happening inside the minds of patients in a vegetative state.
In the spring of 1996, when MRI was just starting to make its mark in the field of imaging, the first MRI system was delivered to Robarts. It was a 4 Tesla (4T), and at the time it was the highest magnetic field in Canada. “In the early days, it was unique across the world,” said Joe Gati, hired by Menon in 1996 as Associate Director of CFMM. “We garnered attention from a lot of other sites for not only our cutting-edge technology but the design and function of the facility. We led the way in a lot of aspects.”
Some of the early work at CFMM involved proving the viability of the technology and demonstrating how increasing field strength could more than linearly improve image quality. One of the first publications by Gati and Menon demonstrated the benefits of using 4T MRI compared to clinically available field strengths like 0.5T and 1.5T. “That paper really propelled the growth of high-field scanners,” Menon said. “At the time we were only the fourth scanner in the world at that field strength – now there are more than 4,000 worldwide.”
This spring, as CFMM celebrates its 20th anniversary, the facility continues to be on the leading edge under Menon’s direction, with a dedicated core staff of 14. In the time he has been director, he has watched the field of ultra high-field imaging grow in unimaginable ways.
Currently inside the $35 million CFMM are Canada’s only large-bore 9.4T MRI for studying animal models of disease; Canada’s first and only 7T human MRI; and the world’s first customer-delivered Siemens Prisma 3T MRI. That represents an increase in the strength of the scanners by almost 100-fold since Menon began his research more than two decades ago.
“With MRI, there is a combination of image processing, and image acquisition, and engineering. It’s just such a growing, innovative, seemingly limitless field for opportunity,” he said.
Part of CFMM’s mission is to advance the field of imaging through innovations in the technology, namely radio frequency coils. Like the lens of a camera, technology can be built for the scanners to focus down on specific areas with more detail for different applications.
“It’s absolutely amazing what we can see now,” he said. “When I go to the scanner here and look at something that we’ve built from scratch and see how it works, it’s pretty incredible.”
While the structure of an organ is important, Menon and his colleagues are spending much of their time focusing on the functional information, exploring new imaging techniques that show exactly what those structures are doing. They are trying to answer questions about blood flow, tissue viability, oxygenation, pH and brain activity.
Menon says while there are thousands of labs around the world using functional MRI, there are only a half dozen or so concerned with advancing the technology and exploring exactly how it works.
“What’s next is to be able to measure the electrical activity in the brain directly with MRI instead of going through the intermediate step of looking at blood flow,” Menon said. “To be able to do that would be phenomenal.”