Updated July 3 at 9:03pm

Brown lab image of R.I. innovation

By Liz Abbott
PBN Staff Writer

Just a block or so from the busy shops and restaurants of Providence’s Thayer Street, a potentially significant research project is underway that requires soft lights, whispering research assistants and a quiet baby nursery.

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FOCUS: HEALTH CARE

Brown lab image of R.I. innovation

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Just a block or so from the busy shops and restaurants of Providence’s Thayer Street, a potentially significant research project is underway that requires soft lights, whispering research assistants and a quiet baby nursery.

Nearly every night of the week, babies of all shapes and sizes visit Brown University’s Advanced Baby Imaging Lab to take part in a groundbreaking study that uses magnetic resonance imaging – a procedure normally reserved for older youngsters and adults – to explore infant brain development.

The lab was created five years ago with a $2.4 million grant from the National Institute of Mental Health after Sean C. Deoni, an assistant professor of engineering at Brown, figured out a way to take an MRI of an infant without using sedation. The result is a place that is fun and serious at the same time, where teddy bears are abundant and cartoon figures adorn the walls, but research is being conducted that may one day lead to greater understanding of autism, attention deficit and other neurological problems.

“This was something we needed,” Judith S. Mercer, a nursing professor at the University of Rhode Island, said of the lab.

Mercer and URI colleague Deb Erickson-Owens are using the lab to study the role increased iron – due to delayed clamping of the umbilical cord – plays in the creation of myelin, a fatty substance that helps to speed up brain messages. In 2012, the researchers received a $2.4 million, five-year grant from the National Institutes of Health for their study, which they believe they would not have received without the already online Advanced Baby Imaging Lab.

The lab is the sort of innovative facility that Rhode Island wants to encourage as it strives to create a knowledge-based economy. It is attracting attention from researchers in Europe and California, as well as from the University of Rhode Island, who see potential in the techniques Deoni has developed for infant brain imaging.

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