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New Center Boosts USC Brain Power

The Dornsife Neuroscience Imaging Center enables scientists to capture images of the human brain and its activity in remarkable detail. The facility will accelerate research at USC and strengthen the university’s position in the field.

New Center Boosts USC Brain Power

The USC College of Letters, Arts & Sciences celebrated the opening of the Dana and David Dornsife Cognitive Neuroscience Imaging Center on Sept. 7.

"Thanks to the generous support of the Dornsife family, we expect to see an increase in the pace of human brain research in the College and the university," said Joseph Aoun, dean of the USC College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, who addressed the group of university leaders, neuroscientists, students and guests at the building dedication ceremony.

"This center will serve as a new focal point for USC's cognitive scientists," Aoun said. "Access to this indispensable, state-of-the-art brain imaging technology will foster new collaborations, further integrate our university-wide training program in the neurosciences and help us attract other top scientists and graduate students."

At the ceremony, USC President Steven B. Sample said, "A vital academic research tool, this new facility will serve as an interdisciplinary catalyst for important scientific, medical and educational breakthroughs that will improve human health and well-being. The Dornsifes' investment of their family's name, and their vision for what the research center will accomplish, are legacies that will last for generations."

Business executive David Dornsife, a USC trustee and vice president of the Hedco Foundation, also spoke before he and his wife, Dana, joined USC officials in cutting the red ribbon draped across the building's entrance.

"As part of the USC community, my family and I have experienced first-hand the benefit of the high-quality education and research provided by USC," Dornsife said. "We're confident USC will make major discoveries and strengthen its position as a major player in the field."

To celebrate the Dornsife family's legacy of support for USC and neuroscience research, a luncheon was held in the nearby Hedco Neurosciences building, which houses many USC College neuroscientists and is named in honor of the Dornsife family's generous donation toward its construction more than a decade ago.

The new Dornsife Imaging Center will provide increased access for USC neuroscientists to the functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) system, which enables scientists to capture images of the human brain and its activity in exquisite detail.

The scanner was funded in part by a National Science Foundation Major Research Instrumentation Award.

Irving Biederman, the principal investigator of the NSF Award, said the prominence of USC neuroscientists and the establishment of the Dornsife Center both proved critical in securing the federal grant.

"The NSF decision was based largely on what they saw as our potential for doing outstanding imaging research and the clear commitment to this objective demonstrated by the establishment of the Dornsife Center," said Biederman, holder of the Harold Dornsife Neurosciences Chair in the College. "More concretely, without the Dornsife gift and the new building, we wouldn't have been able to apply for the grant.

"There's a tremendous range of research projects that our scientists will pursue at the center, from studies of the biological causes of violence and understanding how we are able, in a fraction of a second, to comprehend a scene we've never perceived before, to probing where and how "episodic memory" – the mental diaries of our lives – are produced and stored in the brain," said Biederman, a professor of psychology and computer science.

Projects include one probing the neurological basis of dyslexia and another exploring differences in how the brain processes the emotions of shame and guilt.

Users are expected to include 30 faculty and more than 100 graduate students and postdoctoral researchers from a variety of academic units including the USC Neuroscience Program and the departments of psychology, biological sciences, kinesiology, computer science, gerontology, biomedical engineering, electrical engineering and the USC-affiliated House Ear Institute.

The building was specially designed and built to hold the powerful magnet that forms the core of the center's fMRI scanner.

The fMRI magnet weighs approximately 13 tons (equivalent to a dozen cars) and produces a magnetic field of 3 Tesla – "about 60,000 times the strength of the Earth's magnetic field," said cognitive scientist Zhong-Lin Lu, an associate professor of psychology who trained as a physicist and is an expert on brain imaging techniques.

Because of the magnet's weight and extreme sensitivity – ground vibrations from cars can throw off the scanner's measurements and blur images – the building's foundation had to be heavily reinforced.

The strength of the magnet also meant that the scanning room had to be built with a minimum of metals. Instead, cables made of special materials carry electrical and data lines into and out of the room. To contain the magnetic forces, a thin layer of copper surrounded by many layers of steel plates, enclose the room.

The Los Angeles office of the architectural firm of Perkins & Will designed the building. The Hathaway Dinwiddie Construction Co. served as the building's general contractor.

Lu hopes that in the future the center will be known not only for its discoveries about the human brain and the nature of consciousness, but also for the development and invention of improved techniques to image the brain.

Aoun also underlined the key support provided by Sample and the university in creating the Dornsife Imaging Center.

"Our hope," Aoun said, "is that work undertaken at the facility will lead to new insights into the brain-based disorders and diseases that prove devastating for millions of Americans."