U. hospital hopes to buy brain time with massive MRI
Stroke treatment • Neurosurgeons to test treatment limits with real-time imaging of brains before, during and after a stroke.
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Construction crews hoisted a 9-ton MRI machine into University Hospital on Tuesday, which researchers will use to push boundaries in the treatment of stroke patients.

The machine, an MRI on ceiling-mounted rails, will be housed in a three-room clinical suite. It will help neurosurgeons better spot healthy versus damaged tissue in the brains of patients before, during or immediately after a stoke, potentially allowing them to treat patients currently considered untreatable, said Edwin 'Steve' Stevens, chairman of the U.'s Department of Radiology.

Stroke outcomes have markedly improved in recent years, partly due to non-surgical treatments for dissolving and removing blood clots from the brain. But there's a short window of time for attempting these therapies: within three to six hours of the stroke, depending on the type of treatment, said Stevens.

"If you go to bed at night and wake up unable to speak or move the right side of your body, by current criteria, you are excluded from these therapies," he said. "With imaging, we hope to see if there's still opportunity to treat you; if there is brain to save in a patient, or no brain to save. It will allow us to individualize therapy, instead of basing it on averages."

Interoperative imaging isn't new. Doctors at Huntsman Cancer use an MRI during brain surgery to guide the removal of tumors. It's also used to more accurately diagnose and treat epilepsy and movement disorders such as Parkinson's disease.

Currently, there is no research showing whether it prolongs life, improves quality of life or is cost effective for stroke patients, acknowledges Stevens. That's precisely what researchers at the U. will explore, he said.

"For the first time we'll be able to look at what actually happens during the acute stroke phase," he said.

But he stressed, "Time is important, time is brain. You want get to the hospital as quickly as you can if you suspect stroke."

More than 800,000 Americans suffer strokes each year, according to the American Heart Association. The cost of treating those patients is nearly $20 billion.

The university spent $5 million on the new MRI, not including the cost of rebuilding rooms to house it. It will be available to patients in January. Stevens said stroke patients won't be charged more for the technology than they are for imaging and treatment now.