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Nebraska Goes Big

UNL building world-class brain-imaging center

Dennis Molfese research

By Jean Ortiz Jones, University Communications

Construction is under way on the East Stadium expansion, which includes 22,000 square feet of space for a new research venture that will take a revolutionary approach to investigating the link between the brain and human behavior.

UNL's new Center for Brain, Biology and Behavior builds on an initiative that political scientists Kevin Smith and John Hibbing began more than three years ago. It brought together researchers from diverse disciplines to study complex social dynamics. Political scientists teamed with geneticists, for example, to understand how political attitudes are formed — beyond what mom and dad say around the dinner table.

UNL tapped Dennis Molfese, a world-class expert on brain-recording techniques, to provide the missing brain-imaging component and to galvanize the university's research efforts. Molfese is well known for his skills as an investigator, his talents acquiring grant support and his strength working across disciplines.

"We're going to be with UNL faculty looking at a host of issues that really cut across every discipline in the university. No imaging center in the world is doing that." - Dennis Molfese

Although completion of the stadium expansion project isn't expected until 2013, work tied to the brain-imaging center has been under way in its temporary home in Nebraska Hall since Molfese arrived on campus in fall 2010 to become the center's new director. More than 130 faculty members across the university have already taken one of his 20-hour training sessions designed to introduce them to brain-imaging research and to spark ideas about how to incorporate this approach into their fields of study. Those who choose to continue on will receive advanced training, guidance designing experiments and coaching that will position them to secure grant funds to support their research.

Interview in which Dennis Molfese talks about his research

The lab's centerpiece, a functional magnetic resonance imaging machine or fMRI, is expected to arrive on campus this winter. It can track blood flow within areas of the brain and detect subtle changes linked to behavior.

A recently awarded $1.2 million grant from the Nebraska Research Initiative will help pay for the machine along with other cutting-edge equipment.

The Memorial Stadium site will support the center's partnership with UNL athletics to study the true effects of concussions, among other sports-related issues.

The effort is gaining momentum, too, from UNL's status as a member of the Big Ten Conference and its academic collaboration, the Committee on Institutional Cooperation. Molfese recently was selected to coordinate research across the 13 CIC institutions to understand the long-term effects of concussions.

Whether uncovering insights into concussions, helping economic experts understand what people really consider valuable (as opposed to what they say they value), or uncovering new insights into conditions like schizophrenia, the new center has significant potential to transform lives. Recognizing this, Molfese has set his bar high.

"Our goal is to do nothing less than to make this a cutting-edge, world-renowned, world-unique brain-imaging center that eventually will become a model for brain-imaging centers around the world." - Dennis Molfese

Functional MRI

A type of specialized MRI scan used to measure the change in blood flow related to neural activity in the brain or spinal cord of humans or other animals. It is one of the newest forms of neuroimaging. Since the early 1990s, fMRI has come to dominate the brain mapping field because it is not invasive and it doesn't expose the body to radiation.
Brain scan