With the help of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, Dr. Alex Rauscher is finding ways to use magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to measure injury to the brain caused by multiple sclerosis (MS) and, by extension, to quantify how prescribed therapies can prevent or slow damage.

MRI is routinely used as a clinical tool to help diagnose MS; it’s also regularly used for research, such as for testing new drugs in clinical trials. Dr. Rauscher, in collaboration with researchers at the UBC MRI Research Centre, Dr. Anthony Traboulsee and the UBC Hospital MS Clinic and Research Group at the Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health, intends to look at the phase aspect of the MRI signal and its role in measuring damage to injured brain tissue.

“The MRI signal is like a lighthouse beam, in that is has a brightness, or intensity, and a direction, which is what we refer to as the ‘phase,’” says Dr. Rauscher, who holds a Canada Research Chair in Developmental Neuroimaging. “Usually, MRI scans primarily use intensity to create images, but we’ve found that the phase can inform a lot of how we perceive injury to the brain as a result of MS.”

“Our goal for this project is to figure out how to make use of phase in a way that improves MS diagnosis and treatment,” says Dr. Rauscher.

In order to diagnose MS, a person will receive several different MRI scans, and the images taken together are what enable physicians to confirm a diagnosis. Dr. Rauscher and his team of MRI scientists have developed several different applications to enhance the functionality of MRI, so that it is a more powerful diagnostic and research tool.

“Once we are able to measure damage, we will also be able to measure how new treatments prevent damage,” says Dr. Rauscher. “The more precisely we can measure how a drug prevents damage, the quicker we can evaluate whether a new drug is useful or not. With our imaging technique, we hope to be able to find better treatments quicker and at less cost than we have in the past.”