BioE faculty member to receive college research award for brain imaging work

04/17/2017 - 8:19am

An expert in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), Bioengineering faculty member Brad Sutton has been selected to receive the 2017 College of Engineering Dean’s Award for Excellence in Research for work conducted by an associate professor. Sutton develops innovative MRI techniques to image brain structure and function. He has focused on developing sensitive methods to image the physiological changes in the brain associated with age and disease.

Working with cognitive psychology researchers at the Beckman Institute, Sutton’s group is exploring MRI-based biomarkers that indicate healthy and unhealthy aging related to a variety of interventions, including aerobic exercise and nutrition. His MRI techniques measure function, structure, blood flow, and white matter health.

Specifically, his group has developed measures of blood flow through the arterioles and capillaries in the brain, providing information about their flow rate through a technique known as Flow Enhancement of Signal Intensity (FENSI) and obtaining information about the structure of the blood vessels through a technique known as intravoxel incoherent motion (IVIM). With these measures, Sutton and his collaborators have shown relationships between blood flow, age, cardiorespiratory fitness, and performance on cognitive tasks.

Bioengineering Associate Professor Brad Sutton
Bioengineering Associate Professor Brad Sutton
They have also developed novel methods to image the impact of magnetic field distributions inside the MRI scanner and have drastically increased the achievable spatial resolution in diffusion weighted scans that examine the integrity of white matter structures in the brain. They do this through careful modeling of the physics of the MRI experiment and combine it with high-performance computing resources available at Illinois through the Blue Waters supercomputer at NCSA.

In addition to measuring blood flow and structure in the brain, Sutton and his students have pioneered the application of magnetic resonance elastography (MRE) to measure the mechanical properties of the brain. In collaboration with researchers at Carle Hospital, they have examined changes in mechanical properties of the brain associated with tumors, hydrocephalus, and epilepsy. Additionally, they have found the mechanical properties of certain brain regions to be a sensitive biomarker for particular cognitive functions, such as the hippocampus and memory.

A faculty member since 2003, Sutton is the technical director of the Biomedical Imaging Center at the Beckman Institute, a state-of-the-art facility committed to developing cutting-edge techniques that integrate magnetic resonance methods with other imaging techniques, including optical imaging and EEG.

According to Sutton, he is honored to receive this recognition for the work, but is quick to point out that advancing imaging technology is a team effort.  “The brain provides an immense challenge to non-invasive imaging in terms of its complexity and the limited information that we have about how it works,” said Sutton. “The University of Illinois, Bioengineering Department, and Beckman Institute have provided an excellent platform for integrating bright and energetic colleagues and students along with the state-of-the-art technology required to address this challenge.”