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Connecting pathways in the brain

Noam Harel, Ph.D. (Photo: Scott Streble)

University scientists achieve an important breakthrough with high-resolution imaging

Sufferers of Parkinson’s disease, ataxia, depression, and obsessive compulsive disorder take note: University of Minnesota scientists have taken an important leap forward in their effort to understand disorders that they believe are caused by faulty wiring deep in the brain.

Center for Magnetic Resonance Research imaging expert Noam Harel, Ph.D., is in the spotlight after publishing research results in January about how, for the first time, he and his colleagues successfully mapped neural connections in the human basal ganglia.

“We really don’t know that much about the connectivity of the basal ganglia, the center of the brain,” explains Harel, an associate professor in the departments of radiology and neurosurgery. “We’ve been able to identify the different parts, but now, using very high-resolution images, we can also identify the connections between those structures.”

Collaborators on the research include Christophe Lenglet, Ph.D.; Aviva Abosch, M.D, Ph.D.; Essa Yacoub, Ph.D.; Federico De Martino, Ph.D.; and Guillermo Sapiro, Ph.D.

Harel’s true passion is using this technology to directly affect the lives of people who suffer from a host of neurological diseases—and he can rack this one into the “win” column, as the new imaging capability has become a game-changer for surgeons who treat these disorders with deep brain stimulation (DBS).

“The first time I saw a DBS procedure,” recalls Harel, “I said, ‘This is crazy! You can’t do precise surgery like this with low-resolution MRI images.’ Now these new, higher-resolution images may help surgeons do more targeted, safer procedures.”

He pauses, then grins. “That’s the fun part—when you see that you’ve helped develop something that can actually be used to improve someone’s life.”

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