The USC Stevens Hall for Neuroimaging, a modern, sleek, glass-enclosed building on the southern edge of USC’s Health Sciences Campus, opened its doors with a ceremonial ribbon-cutting on Nov. 17. USC Stevens Hall will be home to the USC Mark and Mary Stevens Neuroimaging and Informatics Institute. Immediately prior to the ribbon-cutting ceremony, Arthur Toga, PhD, director of the USC Stevens Neuroimaging and Informatics Institute, was installed as the Ghada Irani Chair in Neuroscience.

The intimate event was bookended with performances from the Trojan Marching Band and included remarks from C. L. Max Nikias, PhD, president of USC, who stressed how the opening of USC Stevens Hall was yet another important step towards fighting the most debilitating neurologic disorders of our time.

“Here we can hope to understand autism and Alzheimer’s and a host of other challenges,” Nikias said. “Here, we now have an environment in which an electric sense of possibility is ever-present. We can expect to be surprised, as insight and solutions will burst forth in ways we cannot yet imagine.”

Mark and Mary Stevens, USC trustees and named benefactors of USC Stevens Hall, were in attendance to see the results of their strong commitment to multidisciplinary efforts in scientific innovation. Rohit Varma, MD, MPH, newly appointed dean of the Keck School of Medicine of USC and director of the USC Gayle and Edward Roski Eye Institute, was also in attendance to celebrate the grand opening and the advancements that would arise thereof.

“The research from Dr. Toga and his colleagues at the USC Stevens Neuroimaging and Informatics Institute is exactly the type of forward-thinking, translational research that will drive the Keck School of Medicine’s success,” Varma said. “I am looking forward to the transformative science that will be conducted in this building in the coming years.”

The House that Science Built

USC Stevens Hall is wholly optimized for the advanced science for which Toga is known. This is because Toga himself designed the building alongside architecture firm SmithGroupJJR. The 35,227-square-foot building, renovated and rehabilitated from the original 1952 concrete frame, is naturally bright with plenty of California sunshine streaming through glass walls. The main entrance has biometric access control with the ability to read one’s identification badge, fingerprint or iris pattern.

The interior design features few straight lines, an intentional choice from Toga. “Straight lines rarely occur in nature,” he said. The walls are lined with monitors displaying rotating images of exquisite, brightly colored brain maps. But the most fascinating features of USC Stevens Hall are the ones that will facilitate the USC Stevens Neuroimaging and Informatics Institute’s world-class research:

The largest brain data repository in the world, currently holding about three petabytes of information from every continent except Antarctica

A Siemens 3T Prisma magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine, with the world’s first and only Siemens 7T MRI coming early next year. To accommodate the machines, the imaging rooms were built with a removable roof hatch so they are accessible by crane.

The Data Immersive Visualization Environment (DIVE) presentation theater, where researchers can project massive data sets and highly magnified images on a 12-by-15-foot screen with 5 mm pixel display in Ultrahigh Definition 4K resolution.

An on-site, high performance computing (HPC) cluster with 4,096 processor cores

A Brain Research Powerhouse

The USC Stevens Neuroimaging and Informatics Institute, part of the Keck School, is composed of four groups:

The Laboratory of Neuro Imaging (LONI), the most prominent face of the institution, is a research enterprise that includes students, faculty and staff with backgrounds in mathematics, physics, computer science, and neuroscience. The laboratory focuses on the creation of three-dimensional digital neuroanatomic and functional neuroanatomic atlases (in layman’s terms, brain maps), which can better equate data from multiple studies and create a database of invaluable information for neuroscientists worldwide.

The Imaging Genetics Center (IGC) is a multidisciplinary research team of studying the link between genetics and neuroimaging. studying brain imaging, genetics and the connections between them. With the assistance of more than 1,000 collaborators from all over the world, IGC has contributed more than two decades of advances and discoveries in major brain disorders and diseases, including Alzheimer’s and autism.

The Center for Image Acquisition (CIA), which opened earlier this year, refers to USC Stevens Hall’s MRI facility. The Siemens 3T that is currently in use employs a high-end gradient system that provides the detailed imaging information required for the Institute’s research needs. The Siemens 7T MRI system, which will arrive in 2017, is an investigational device that will be used exclusively for cutting-edge clinical trials.

The USC Stevens Neuroimaging and Informatics Institute also houses the Masters of Science program in Neuroimaging and Informatics. The one-year, 26 credit program provides in-depth understanding about the science and technology behind neuroimaging and informatics and how to leverage this knowledge to drive impactful discoveries in brain research.

The Visionary at the Helm

Toga has long been an acclaimed figure for his brain imaging research. Alongside Paul Thompson, PhD, Toga is widely acclaimed for developing advanced algorithms and scientific approaches in neuroimaging, using massive data sets to better understand the brain’s geography in both population-based and disease-specific studies. Thompson and Toga’s arrival at USC in 2013 was publicized as a victory for the university, as well as a benefit to LONI. At the time, Toga expressed that joining the Trojan Family “would invigorate (their) activities considerably.”

With the doors of USC Stevens Hall officially opened, researchers will be hard at work solving some of the most pressing neurological issues of our time. Toga currently has millions in federal grant funding, including

$21.7 million from the National Institutes of Health to study prevention and cures for epilepsy

$12.3 million grant from the National Institute on Aging to study Alzheimer’s disease in collaboration with Berislav Zlokovic, MD, PhD, director of the Zilkha Neurogenetic Institute

$3 million grant from the Alzhiemer’s Association, also in support of Toga and Zlokovic’s collaborative research

Through the efforts of LONI and the IGC, as well as numerous other studies slated to use the CIA at USC Stevens Hall, the university will continue driving innovation at the focal point of biotechnology and data analysis.

“I designed every facet of USC Stevens Hall bearing in mind the challenges we face in neuroimaging and the tools my team needs to overcome those challenges,” said Toga. “Through the generosity of Mark and Mary Stevens, we have the ideal environment to enable our research; and you can expect the Institute to chip away even faster at the perplexing neurological issues plaguing us today.

— Mary Dacuma