The new technology could expand access to medical imaging; improve treatment for multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease, other neurological disorders

The images above show the brain of a patient with multiple sclerosis. The two images on the left show iron content, with the top image displaying a whole brain slice and the bottom magnifying a lesion. The images on the right show oxygen extraction fraction, with the top image depicting a whole brain slice and the bottom magnifying a lesion. Credit: University at Buffalo.

BUFFALO, N.Y. — As blood circulates throughout our bodies, cells extract oxygen from it. This process, known as oxygen metabolism, helps groups of cells called tissue grow and carry out other essential functions.

Being able to precisely measure how much oxygen tissues gobble up – a ratio known as oxygen extraction fraction (OEF) – would enable health care professionals to create detailed maps of hard-to-see places, such as our brains.

These maps can ultimately help doctors infer where tissue is healthy and where it is not, which is especially useful when treating people with neurological disorders such as multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease and stroke.

Unfortunately, there is no widely available and cost-effective method to map OEF. The National Institutes of Neurological Disorders and Stroke recently awarded a University at Buffalo-led research team a five-year, $1.77 million Research Project Grant (R01) to change that.

Led by Junghun Cho, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, the team will use the award to develop new technology that, when paired with common MRI scanners, provides accurate and reliable data to create OEF maps.

“Medical imaging has improved greatly over the years,” Cho says. “But there is still room for improvement.

“With this grant, we will develop a novel toolset, including new biophysics models and algorithms, to process routine MRI images. The hope is that the toolset will be adopted across the nation, and even the world, greatly improving access to noninvasive medical imaging, as well as bettering our understanding in diagnosing and treating complex cerebrovascular conditions.”

For example, the progressive degeneration of the nervous system is a hallmark of multiple sclerosis. What causes this is unknown. One theory suggests that it relates to the dysfunction of mitochondria (part of the cell that generates energy) and/or sustained inflammation in multiple sclerosis lesions. Recent work by Cho and colleagues suggests that each can be measured through OEF mapping, which would provide doctors with a more nuanced look at the condition.

Project co-investigators from UB include Chang-Xing Ma of the School of Public Health and Health Professions, and Ferdinand Schweser and Robert Zivadinov, both of the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. Additional co-investigators come from Washington University’s School of Medicine.