A newly funded functional magnetic resonance imaging machine (fMRI) called the Siemens Trio 3-Tesla fMRI is being installed on the ground floor of Emory’s Psychological and Interdisciplinary Studies building and will be fully operable for research in April.

The new machine will be a part of the Facility for Education and Research in Neuroscience (FERN) at Emory, which explores the neural basis for human thoughts and behaviors.

This project was partially funded by a $1 million grant from the U.S. Office of Naval Research as part of the Department of Defense’s Human, Social, Cultural, Behavioral Modeling program – a part of a larger initiative aiming to broaden people’s understanding of how humans think.

According to Gregory Berns, a professor of economics in the College and the director of FERN, with the fMRI machine student and faculty researchers will combine the study of behavior and the study of the brain, investigating issues of attention, memory, emotion and the ways in which individuals process social and cultural information today using neuroimaging technology.

He also explained that the Siemens Trio 3-Tesla is one of the most popular MRIs used for research and clinical imaging. “F” stands for “functional,” and refers to a particular type of imaging that is used to study changes in blood flow and oxygenation, which are related to neuronal activity, Berns said.

The new approach allows researchers to identify areas of the brain that are most active, according to a March 6 University press release. For instance, an fMRI can illustrate when people are thinking about emotions as opposed to solving math problems. Before the installation of the machine, Emory researchers did not always have access to such neuroimaging technology, as there is only one other fMRI facility at Emory University Hospital.

Berns said the new fMRI machine is an element of FERN’s mission to create a friendly learning environment for people of any field or college major to understand the brain with the fMRI as a fundamental tool.

“A major part of our mission is education,” Berns said.

Undergraduate courses in how to use the fMRI, workshops and training for faculty who want to integrate this tool into their research will be implemented as a part of the education mission, according to Berns.

According to the press release, instead of using hired technicians to operate the scanner, FERN will train students and faculty to become involved in all aspects of the research, from experiment design to data collection and data analysis.

FERN plans to allow already trained students and faculty to teach others as well as to assist in experiments so that using the fMRI machine will be as hands-on, user-friendly and educational as possible, the press release states.

“From anthropology to economics, political science, music and literature, students and faculty from virtually every discipline we have on campus now have the ability to examine the brain in relation to their area of interest,” Patricia Bauer, an Emory psychologist and senior associate dean of research at the College, said in the press release.

Berns said this tool can be used to reveal how humans think, as researchers will be able to discover anything from emotions, attention span or memory in ways they could not find before.

An fMRI machine works by using a large magnetic field that aligns with protons in the water and tissues of the human body, Berns explained. Protons, which are positively charged ions, start “wobbling” in the presence of a strong magnetic field. Thus, the fMRI machine uses this “wobbling” property to map areas of the brain with radio waves. The machine was delivered in late February and is currently being tested by Siemens’ technicians.

– By Mallika Manyapu