The Better to See You With

3d Imaging collage

Robert J. Clements, Ph.D., wants to see inside your head.

And not just at the level a doctor can see inside your brain now with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

He is developing new imaging techniques that can look at what’s going on in the brain down to the level of a single cell. He can reconstruct in 3-D a model of exactly where a neurodegenerative disease such as multiple sclerosis (MS) is causing lesions and then track changes over time, a tool that will someday be useful for assessing how a disease is progressing and how it responds to treatment. 

The new technologies he works with make it possible to see complex internal organs or systems in three dimensions or even 4D – three dimensions over a time sequence. This can help researchers and clinicians to locate and visualize the area they are interested in and gain new insights.

The images also have proven to be provocative teaching tools. In two studies, Clements and Kent State education experts introduced the technology into local high schools so that science students could see how a heart beats and functions, for example, or visualize the structure of DNA. In classes where the imaging technology was used, test scores improved. Students were engaged and excited, Clements said. He is also investigating the use of touch or tactile feedback devices to help visually impaired students understand spatial concepts.

And, he is using electroencephalography (EEG) brain activity recordings to learn more about the mechanisms involved in 3D image viewing and memory formation.

His techniques combine MRI with laser-scanning confocal microscopy of tissue sections and software analysis techniques, greatly increasing resolution and pinpointing what is seen more broadly through magnetic resonance. A reconstruction can then be projected stereoscopically for a three-dimensional view.

With algorithms that Clements developed in collaboration with computer scientists, the multi-channel, high-resolution datasets are automatically analyzed to quantify and classify cells, among other things. By using clusters of computers, data can be delivered faster and can be more accurately reproduced. The 3-D images are not just visual aids but incorporate a wealth of information about disease state, body function and the effects of treatment. 

Improving MRIs

Some of the finely detailed, high-resolution microscopic imagery he has developed is more suited to research at the cellular level than for clinical use. But by modifying MRI protocols he also has been able to acquire greater contrast and definition than would be possible with conventional MRI imaging. This only requires a change in software routines and could be deployed in existing scanning systems, he said, possibly eliminating the need to achieve contrast with dyes, which can harm kidneys or provoke allergic reactions in patients.

An assistant professor in the Department of Biological Sciences, Clements collaborates widely. Last summer he was awarded a patent for 3D dataset techniques with James Blank, professor of biological sciences and interim dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. He works with faculty in departments throughout Kent State, from biological sciences and computer sciences to chemistry, chemical physics, psychology, biochemistry and education. He also collaborates with scientists at the Cleveland Clinic on automated dataset analysis. Students in two computer science classes also have been involved.

Clements has even explored extending the 3D system to fashion, architecture and art applications, experimenting with it in Florence, Italy, at Kent State’s study-abroad site, to help visualize ancient artifacts and statues such as Michelangelo’s David.

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