Sussex Neuroscience

Professor Mara Cercignani

MaraNovel in-vivo multimodal imaging approaches to characterize CNS pathology


Quantitative MRI techniques provide indices that reveal neural tissue properties non-invasively, thus offering an invaluable tool to investigate the pathological substrate of neurological diseases. My group focuses on the development, optimisation and application of multimodal approaches based on MRI and neurophysiology to assess the structure and function of the CNS. The technqiues that we use include diffusion-weighted (DW) MRI, which probes tissue microstructure by measuring the motion of water molecules within tissue; magnetization transfer (MT) MRI, which enables the estimation of myelin, the insulating material wrapped around the neurons; metabolic MRI techniques, that measure perfusion and oxygen extraction fraction; and sodium MRI, which probes directly the concentration of sodium in the brain. Thanks to the collaboration with the Quantum Systems and Devices group (, we are pioneering the use of atomic sensors for the direct measurement of neuronal currents.

Examples of projects currently available:

1. Combining neurophysiology with myelin and sodium MRI to explain MS clinical symptoms (in collaboration with Dr Bozzali):
The loss of myelin occurring in MS impairs saltatory conduction along the axons and results in acute clinical symptoms. Patients, however, typically recover from symptoms earlier than myelin repair has occurred, thanks to the reorganisation of sodium channels along the demyelinated axon, which helps promote continuous current conduction. This compensatory mechanism, however, is also believed to become dysfunctional in the absence of an efficient myelin repair, eventually resulting in energy failure and axonal death. We will combine quantitative MRI and magnetoencephalography (MEG) to quantify myelination, sodium concentration and conduction velocities along selected functional systems to assess the relationship between these elements.

2. Measuring the cerebral metabolic rate of oxygen (CMRO2) non invasively (in collaboration with Dr Colasanti)
While functional MRI and the BOLD signal have become a very popular method for localising neural activity, it is a very indirect means of measuring it. In particular, as it relies on neurovascular coupling, changes to both, vasculature and brain activity can affect it. More quantitative approaches to measure oxygen extraction are avaible, which combined with MRI measures of perfusion, can yield a quantification of CMRO2.

3. Measuring the effects of inflammation on the brain (in collaboration with Prof Harrison)
A role for inflammation in the major neurological and psychiatric conditions is increasingly recognised. Although no MRI technique is able to directly capture inflammation, we have a range of methods that can detect the effects of inflammation on the brain, such as increased BBB permeability, microglial morphometric changes, and metabolic effects. In collaboration with Professor Harrison’s group, we develop and test novel MRI methods using experimental models of inflammation.

Working in my laboratory, the student will gain expertise with state-of-the-art imaging methods that can be applied to the study of many diseases as well as more broadly to neuroscience. The successful applicant will have some background in neuroscience or neurology. Some knowledge of image processing and medical imaging is an advantage, as is some technical background in programming.