January 31, 2005

NIDA and the University of Stellenbosch, Tygerberg, South Africa, have installed the continent’s first functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) system. The installation was part of an ongoing collaboration between Dr. Deborah A. Yurgelun-Todd, Harvard Medical School, and the South African Medical Research Council (MRC) Unit on Anxiety and Stress Disorders at the University of Stellenbosch, which is directed by Dr. Daniel Stein.

The binational research team will use fMRI to examine neurobiological correlates of cognitive dysfunctions observed in cannabis and cannabis/methaqualone abusers, their discordant siblings, and normal controls. NIDA’s Southern Africa Initiative funded the project with an administrative supplement to Dr. Yurgelun-Todd’s parent grant: “Residual Cognitive Effects of Cannabis: An fMRI Study.” 

In addition to the fMRI equipment, the researchers installed fMRI paradigm presentation software that runs simultaneously with the MR scanner protocol designed to measure fMRI blood oxygen dependent level (BOLD) signal during presentation of cognitive tasks, such as spatial working memory and response inhibition paradigms. The system includes a triggering device that interfaces with a computer workstation and an LCD projector. Staff from the MRC group was trained to use the fMRI presentation software, deliver instructions to subjects in both Afrikaans and English, score patient responses, and analyze the behavioral data. 

To meet the NIDA Southern Africa Initiative goal of establishing collaborative projects that allow mutual use of a shared database, the researchers collected complete fMRI data sets during the visit to verify system functioning, data transfer, and processing.

Dr. Paul Carey, MRC Unit on Anxiety and Stress Disorders, and Dr. Deborah Yurgelun-Todd, Director, Cognitive Neuroimaging Laboratory, McLean Hospital, Harvard Medical School, discuss the joint research project.

Dr. David Olson, Brain Imaging Center, McLean Hospital, left, and Dr. Paul Carey, MRC Unit on Anxiety and Stress Disorders, prepare to test the continent’s first fMRI system, installed with NIDA funding.