Federal $4.5 million grant provides The University of Texas at Austin with imaging machine to study drug and alcohol abuse

Aug. 18, 2003

AUSTIN, Texas—The University of Texas at Austin has received $4.5 million from the federal Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP)—to obtain and operate one of the most sophisticated functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging machines (fMRI) in the country to explore how the brain is affected by drug and alcohol abuse.

The federal Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) will provide additional financial and other support for operation of the machine.

The grant is part of a national program of the ONDCP’s Counterdrug Technology Assessment Center (CTAC) to place brain-imaging equipment in facilities around the country with the goal of reducing demand for illegal drugs. Substance abuse researchers use the machines to reveal the processes in the brain that result in addiction, and what can be done to reverse or mitigate these processes.

The University of Texas at Austin is the first institution without a medical research unit on its campus to obtain an fMRI machine through a CTAC contract and one of the first to receive funding from the VA. The university’s Institute for Advanced Technology and Waggoner Center for Alcohol and Addiction Research spearheaded the proposal and will manage the machine.

An important element in the grant is the doctoral education component originated by Dr. Francisco Gonzalez-Lima, the George I. Sanchez Centennial Professor in the College of Liberal Arts. The focus of the educational component will be the university’s graduate program in neurosciences, but also will include training for graduate students in clinical psychology, cell and molecular biology, pharmacy and computer science. Undergraduates also will have opportunities for training in imaging research.

Dr. Robert Fossum, a senior research fellow at the Institute for Advanced Technology and a principal investigator in the project, said the university’s capability to have students work with the machine was a key part of the university’s proposal.

“Our students will get hands-on training in using imaging technology,” Fossum said. “They can add valuable information about the workings of the brain as students and as researchers as they obtain advanced degrees.”

“We look forward to the university’s contributions of research and adding trained researchers to our efforts,” said Dr. Albert Brandenstein, CTAC’s director and chief scientist.

“The significant investment being made by the ONDCP and the VA in The University of Texas at Austin will result in a major enhancement of ongoing research and education activities in addiction and neuroscience,” said Dr. Juan Sanchez, the university’s vice president for research. “This multimillion-dollar device will provide our researchers with a state-of-the-art tool to gain new insight into the brain circuitry of drug craving and addiction.”

“We are delighted to be a full partner with The University of Texas at Austin in this project,” said Dr. Jason Worchel, acting chief of research for the Central Texas Veterans Health Care System (CTVHCS). “This will provide the VA with a first-class educational and research program in Austin.”

The idea for a brain-imaging initiative and the proposal to obtain the machinewas made jointly by the university and the VA.

“The VA has a long history of research and treatment of veterans with substance abuse disorders,” Worchel said. “This resource will have a direct benefit for treatment of veterans and all patients with substance abuse. This machine, in concert with the strong genetic and animal research UT has, will put us in the forefront of drug demand research.”

The imaging machine should strengthen the university’s collaborative research and educational programs with other southwestern research-oriented educational institutions, including the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) at Galveston. UTMB faculty members have extensive experience in neuroimaging, especially in basic research conducted at the UTMB Hall Magnet Facility. The opportunity to engage in collaborative studies of high resolution imaging of the human nervous system will be important to faculty at The University of Texas at Austin, UTMB and CTVHCS.

CTAC’s program provides the world’s most advanced brain imaging machines in exchange for a commitment from research institutions to devote significant time on the machines to drug abuse research, Brandenstein said.

“As part of the exchange,” Brandenstein said, “the research centers are training the next generation of medical researchers in this field which traditionally has not attracted much interest from bright young minds because of the stigma attached to drugs and the low priority given to it by the pharmaceutical industry.”

The principal investigators of the project are Fossum and Dr. Adron Harris, director of the Waggoner Center for Alcohol and Addiction Research.

FMRI is a noninvasive technology that can be used to study anatomy, function and neurochemistry in alert human and animal subjects. It creates three-dimensional, high-resolution pictures of the body through the use of a magnetic field. This scanner is 3.0 Tesla in strength, which means that it is 70,000 times more powerful than the earth’s magnetic field.

In terms of addiction, the fMRI “shows how a drug has caused the brain to be rewired or corrupted,” Harris said. “A critical part of both of those is the ability to study brain function in living humans and animals noninvasively. This has been a large gap in the capabilities on this campus having no imaging facility.”

Worchel said neural circuitry related to addiction has common elements with other neurological and psychiatric disorders.

“If we understand the mechanisms which lead to addiction,” he said, “we will also gain invaluable new knowledge into other disorders and into the inter-relationship between brain function, psychology and other physiological systems such as cardiovascular and immunology.”

Other institutions that have procured imaging equipment through the CTAC program include McLean Hospital, a psychiatric teaching facility of Harvard Medical School; Oregon Health and Science University in Portland; Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, Mass.; and the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center in Denver.

The network of collaborating brain imaging centers is to build a database of information about addiction that can be shared, increasing the pace of scientific advancements.

The U.S. government is spending nearly $12 billion a year on treating and preventing drug abuse and interdicting illicit drugs.

For more information contact: Tim Green, Office of the Vice President for Research, 512-232-6391.