Dr. Steven Potkin
Dr. Steven Potkin leads the effort to standardize fMRI in research labs across the country, which has yielded breakthroughs in the study of schizophrenia. Daniel A. Anderson / University Communications

As a brain imaging researcher who studies schizophrenia, Dr. Steven Potkin saw a large problem limiting growth in his field and the potential for new clinical treatments.

“Many research centers around the country were collecting data through functional magnetic resonance imaging, yet there was no way to compare or combine the fMRI data in a useful way,” he says.

So Potkin, the Robert R. Sprague Brain Imaging Chair and Brain Imaging Center director, and colleagues nationwide undertook an ambitious effort in 2002 to develop new methods to calibrate fMRI technology. For the first time, multiple research centers began using standardized tools and techniques in large-scale studies to understand brain disease and illness.

The Functional Biomedical Informatics Research Network, led by Potkin, has received nearly $40 million in National Institutes of Health funding and involves a consortium of 12 other U.S. universities and collaborators from around the world.

Their work is starting to bear fruit. With standardized technology, multisite clinical studies of people with schizophrenia are yielding more information than ever before about the neural basis of this disease.

In December, a Potkin-led study using scanning data from around the country identified the neural dysfunction responsible for the memory problems experienced by people with schizophrenia. The study discovered new genes linked to the dysfunction, which created opportunities to develop new pharmaceutical treatments. By studying data from fMRI tests – taken while patients are involved with mental tasks – Potkin and his colleagues are discovering the reasons behind memory loss and hallucinations associated with the disease.

“With these functional studies, we are beginning to understand in detail the differences between schizophrenic brains and normal brains,” Potkin says. “For instance, we found that people with schizophrenia inefficiently use their brain circuits to retrieve information, which is a hallmark finding in our field. And it wouldn’t have been possible without having the type of large-scale studies that FBIRN creates.

“Before we created and started using the tools developed through FBIRN, searching for the genes that cause schizophrenia was like looking for your lost keys in a dark parking lot with only one lamp lit. Now, the same parking lot is lit with many, many lamps. Everyone’s working with the same large dataset, so our learning about schizophrenia and other mental illnesses is accelerated. It’s an exciting time.”

To further the work spawned by FBIRN, Potkin and his UCI colleagues are hosting the fifth International Imaging Genetics Conference Jan. 19-20 at the Beckman Center. For more information, see www.imaginggenetics.uci.edu.