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Deep in the Neurological Institute basement at 168th Street and Fort Washington Avenue, far from construction projects, traffic, and pedestrians, you can watch the brain at work in a new brain imaging center.

The 4,000-square-foot, 21st century facility, called the Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) Research Center, is one aspect of an effort to remodel the 12,000-square-foot basement into a cutting-edge research resource, in part based on funding from the New York State Office of Science, Technology, and Academic Research (NYSTAR). The fMRI Research Center, led by recent hire Dr. Joy Hirsch, professor of functional neuroradiology at P&S and the Center for Neurobiology and Behavior, is the most recent addition to the floor.

The basement also houses two other imaging facilities: the MRI Research Center (formerly the Hatch Research Center) and the Biomedical Engineering Imaging Research Center. While the other two facilities largely develop new imaging technologies and improve existing ones, the fMRI Center will allow Columbia investigators to employ fMRI to advance neuroscience research, Dr. Hirsch says.

Functional MRI is a non-invasive technology developed in the early 1990s that produces high resolution images of brain activity during task performance by detecting oxygenated hemoglobin in the brain's blood vessels. The location of the brain MRI signal that results from the stimulus or task is presumed to represent the brain location that responds to that stimulus or directs the action taken. A key question in current neuroscience is how behavior is influenced by brain neurophysiology, and functional MRI is a developing technique that can contribute to the answer, Dr. Hirsch says.

One of Dr. Hirsch's guiding goals of the center is to bring disciplines together to use functional brain imaging to enhance patient care and drug discovery and to better understand how the brain works. The facility is designed to foster collaborations across the university, including researchers from psychology, computer science, medical informatics, neuroscience, neurology, surgery, psychiatry, and radiology.

Dr. Hirsch came to Columbia in June from Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and the Weill Medical College at Cornell University, where she founded the fMRI laboratory and introduced brain mapping for neurosurgical planning. She retains her post as adjunct professor of neuroscience at Weill Medical College to continue supervision of thesis projects of graduate students who moved with her. She also has an appointment in the Psychology Department on the Morningside campus.

Dr. Hirsch's research interests include human language, vision, sensory, motor, and cognitive systems, chronic pain and pain management, and neurosurgical planning.

Language Functions

Dr. Hirsch and colleagues have shown that the brain processes second languages in different areas than the primary language depending on whether the second language was learned in childhood or later in life. In these studies, people speak and read their second language while in the scanner to see areas in the brain activated. Current and future experiments seek to understand how new languages are acquired and how they co-exist within the language-sensitive neural system. Dr. Hirsch heads a multi-institutional collaboration including laboratories at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cornell (Ithaca), and New York University to integrate technologies such as magnetoencephalography (MEG), electro-encephalography (EEG), and behavioral testing to understand bilingualism.

Drug Evaluations

Dr. Hirsch's prior research revealed that chronic pain cessation following a therapeutic treatment is associated with the activity of a system of cortical areas. The finding may allow the targeting of certain systems involved in treating some types of chronic pain. The group now hopes to identify cortical systems involved in pain relief and to develop predictive markers that would help determine which of many therapies might benefit an individual patient. These studies also aim to understand how drugs work to treat CNS disorders, including anxiety and depression.

Neurosurgical Planning

To improve the safety of neurosurgery, Dr. Hirsch and her staff are developing functional tests for preoperative neurosurgery patients to help a surgeon determine the location of areas around a brain tumor critical for motor, sensory, language, visual, and auditory functions. In one study, Dr. Hirsch's team validated fMRI maps by comparing them with standard, older but invasive mapping procedures and to pre- and post-surgical outcomes. Based on results from the first 120 patients, the utility of fMRI methods for improved outcomes in neurosurgical procedures was documented. Patients frequently use a functional map before making decisions about treatments and where the procedure will be performed.

Visual Perception, Cognition, Learning and Rehabilitation

Graduate students and postdoctoral fellows in Dr. Hirsch's laboratory are investigating questions related to the neurophysiology of perception and cognition. Studies are aimed at systems involved in encoding and forgetting new associations, how smells contribute to learned associations, what systems are involved in various types of reasoning and problem solving, how motor skills are learned, what strategies are employed by the brain for rehabilitation of lost or damaged functions, and what systems contribute to perceptual illusions and imagery. The projects are unified by a hypothesis that says these functions are driven by specific long-range networks of brain areas that transiently bind together necessary brain components to implement these functions. The goal is to understand the principal processes that underlie the neural circuitry.

The laboratory includes a suite of rooms for the fMRI scanner and complementary technology, computing facilities, and office, classroom and conference space plus a short hallway in which the lab's research posters are exhibited. The centerpiece is the fMRI scanner—a machine General Electric customized to include synchronized stimulations and to acquire images and physiological and behavioral indicators of performance and responses. The lab, which has a research contract with GE, is a showcase site for the company. The scanner can measure heart rate, respiration, galvanic skin response, reaction time, and button-press responses. Olfactory stimulation is also available as scents can be delivered through tubes in the scanner room's wall.

The scanner room, which sits on bedrock, was used previously by the late Dr. Sadek Hillel, a premier investigator in radiology, who in the early 1980s installed one of the first clinical MRI scanners in the United States.

Supplementary machines that support interpretation of functional imaging information are transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) and EEG equipment for stimulating specific areas of the brain and measuring the induced activity and a large central computer system to enable processing of the massive amounts of data.

With the equipment almost fully in place, Dr. Hirsch is spreading the word about the lab's collaborative activity, which in a sense mimics the current view of brain function. "In the past, researchers tended to focus on specific areas of the brain, thinking language, for example, was controlled by one particular region," Dr. Hirsch says. "Now we know many areas of the brain work together, in networks, to handle complex functions."