NIH provides $24 million to support research network

Bethesda 17 March 2006The United States National Center for Research Resources (NCRR), a part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), will provide $24,29 million over five years to the University of California, Irvine (UCI) for continued support to the Biomedical Informatics Research Network (BIRN). Currently a consortium of 28 universities and 37 research groups, BIRN is leveraging and sharing distributed tools, software applications, techniques, data, and expertise that extend beyond the boundaries of individual laboratories. This major NCRR initiative, involving both basic and clinical investigators, is initially concentrating on research involving neuro-imaging, but the tools and technologies developed will ultimately be applicable to other disciplines.


UCI is leading the part of the project known as Function BIRN that brings together researchers at 14 institutions for the common purpose of developing and testing interdisciplinary techniques for integrating efforts in functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) across multiple sites. The award will allow the Function BIRN team to improve calibration of imaging equipment across sites, develop robust protocols for cognitive assessment, formulate methods for analysis of resulting data, and develop a scalable technology toolkit to support such complex studies. A test project will interpret fMRI datasets from more than 200 subjects scanned at facilities across the country.

"Through this effort, we are creating new models for collaboration among researchers who study diseases at multiple sites with different equipment", stated Elaine Collier, M.D., Assistant Director of NCRR's Division of Clinical Research. "Function BIRN's utilization of emerging technology for collaborative research and sharing of knowledge gained will accelerate scientific discoveries by allowing researchers to tackle complex questions and large-scale research projects that were not previously possible."

In its initial phase, the Function BIRN focused on developing a shared data storage infrastructure and standard imaging methods for the multiple sites. The project entailed a set of five research participants who traveled to nine sites around the country for brain scans using a common protocol. This formed the first calibration dataset of its kind in the world for systematically studying intersite variability. Software tools were developed to reduce such variability, to automatically correct image distortions, and to manage data for large and diverse neuro-imaging research projects.

Function BIRN's director is Steven G. Potkin, M.D., a professor of psychiatry and the Robert R. Sprague Director of Brain Imaging at UCI. "One of our most significant accomplishments is that, through Function BIRN, we have begun to create the sociology and culture for data sharing among researchers", Dr. Potkin stated. "By working together with top researchers at many sites, we can simultaneously test a variety of approaches to a problem and compare results, which has greatly accelerated the progress we are able to make."

Another goal of Function BIRN is to encourage the research community to make use of the tools, data, and lessons learned. Collaborations have already begun with other NIH-supported organisations such as the Neuroimaging Informatics Technology Initiative, the Treatment Unit on Research for Neurocognition in Schizophrenia, and NCRR-funded General Clinical Research Centers located around the country.

In addition to Function BIRN, the overall BIRN initiative comprises three other components. They include the BIRN Coordinating Center, the primary software development and computational hub; Morphometry BIRN, which is investigating whether structural differences in the brain correlate to symptoms of neuropsychiatric illnesses; and Mouse BIRN, which is studying animal models of diseases such as multiple sclerosis, schizophrenia, Parkinson's disease, and brain cancer.

With the infrastructure in place and the lessons learned from the neurology projects, NCRR plans to expand BIRN to support other types of large-scale, collaborative investigations. BIRN is expected to eventually incorporate distributed computing resources, mechanisms for the integration of interoperable software tools, and linkage of data through the federation of databases.

The National Center for Research Resources (NCRR) provides laboratory scientists and clinical researchers with environments and tools that they can use to prevent, detect, and treat a wide range of diseases. This support enables discoveries that begin at the molecular and cellular level, move to animal-based studies, and then are translated to patient-oriented clinical research, resulting in cures and treatments for both common and rare diseases. NCRR connects researchers with patients and communities across the nation to bring the power of shared resources and research to improve human health.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) includes 27 Institutes and Centers and is a component of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. It is the primary federal agency for conducting and supporting basic, clinical and translational medical research, and it investigates the causes, treatments, and cures for both common and rare diseases.

Function BIRN's open-source data and tools are available at the BIRN web site. For more information about BIRN, you can visit the National Center for Research Resources web site.

Leslie Versweyveld

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