Adam Raikes gives scientists an eyeful of the human brain

Adam Raikes gives scientists an eyeful of the human brain

By Health Sciences
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Raikes, who describes himself as a "computers and numbers guy," says colorful brain MRIs allow him to examine normally unseen parts of the anatomy.
Raikes, who describes himself as a "computers and numbers guy," says colorful brain MRIs allow him to examine normally unseen parts of the anatomy.
Raikes examines a colorful image of a brain, which can help provide a glimpse at neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's.
Raikes examines a colorful image of a brain, which can help provide a glimpse at neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's.

When Adam Raikes meets someone new, he's inevitably asked about his job. He may tell them he's an assistant scientific investigator at the Center for Innovation in Brain Science at the University of Arizona Health Sciences. Pushed for more details, he might say he processes, reconstructs and analyzes raw data from brain MRIs. If they respond with a blank stare, he'll take out his smartphone and show them an image: wisps of multicolored fibers arrayed in the shape of a brain.

"That's what I do," he tells them. "I make this picture."

In Raikes' case, a picture really is worth a thousand words.

"That's typically sufficient," he said with a wry smile.

At his computer, Raikes spins the bits and bytes from an MRI data file into stunning rainbow images of brains. By giving researchers a glimpse inside, he helps them figure out what's going wrong in brains affected by Alzheimer's and other neurodegenerative diseases – and how to stop it.

The images

A 7-tesla MRI machine is housed in the basement of the Bioscience Research Laboratories on the Health Sciences campus in Tucson. The MRI units most of us are familiar with are 1.5 teslas — a unit of measurement referring to the strength of the magnet — making the 7-tesla MRI uncommonly powerful.

"We're relying on how water diffuses in the brain to give us structural information," Raikes said. "We use the magnet to push the water in one direction and another. You need that kind of force to move water in the brain."

This method, called diffusion-weighted imaging, gives him a peek at the brain's interior structure, illustrated by 3D representations of nerve tracts carving myriad neural pathways through the brain.

Raikes, who describes himself as a "computers and numbers guy," brings his deep expertise in imaging to the Center for Innovation in Brain Science. Though he creates intimate images of normally unseen parts of the anatomy, Raikes never touches a single patient. He's the black box that takes the raw, grayscale data captured by MRI technicians and transforms it into vibrant imagery that bursts at the seams with clues about the inner workings of the brain.

"I'm more of the back-end guy, a computers and numbers guy," he said. "My days are spent writing code. There's a lot of under-the-hood computation that goes into that."

His deep expertise in human brain imaging allows researchers to determine the size and volume of important areas of the brain, such as the hippocampus, a seahorse-shaped structure nestled deep in the brain integral to learning and memory. In people with Alzheimer's, the hippocampus gets smaller as the disease progresses, leading researchers to search for ways to protect it.

"The goal is to reverse hippocampal atrophy and identify therapeutics that undo the damage," Raikes said. "But, even if we may not be able to reverse Alzheimer's, we may be able to slow that progression such that you still get a 'normal' life."

Raikes's work has applications for other age-associated neurodegenerative diseases, and it supports the investigations of CIBS scientists who hope to translate what they discover in the laboratory into next-generation treatments for Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis and Lou Gehrig's disease.

The journey

Raikes did not expect to be creating images of brains for a living.

He "danced around some majors" before zeroing in on sports medicine. He completed his undergraduate degree at Temple University and his master's degree at Utah State University, set on becoming an athletic trainer. That's where his career trajectory took its first sharp turn.

"My boss called me out of the blue," he recalled. "He said, 'Hey, we need to talk.'"

It turned out that Raikes' department at Utah State University was launching a doctoral program, and they wanted him to enroll. He completed his doctorate in 2017 with research on the relationship between sleep and concussions.

His career took a second sharp turn when an unexpected opportunity brought him back to his hometown for a postdoctoral position.

He found a job in the Social, Cognitive, and Affective Neuroscience Lab, working with William D. "Scott" Killgore, professor of psychiatry at the College of Medicine – Tucson and a member of the BIO5 Institute, investigating blue light therapy to improve sleep after a concussion.

"In the 3 1/2 years I worked in Dr. Kilgore's lab, I learned all I know about imaging," Raikes said. "It wasn't something I was anticipating, but it was a cool extra feature to that job."

After gaining a reputation for his imaging talents, Raikes was recruited to work at CIBS. He says it's not a position he would have thought to pursue on his own.

"It wasn't concussions, it wasn't sleep, it wasn't sports medicine," he recalled. "But I had an opportunity to step outside my comfort zone. And I had an opportunity to stay here in Tucson, which was great."

It might not have been the journey he expected, but it was the natural result of being open to where life took him.

"Things have been put in my path," Dr. Raikes said. "I was expecting to stay in athletic training and be on the sidelines of sports. It's been a lot of turns to get to where I am, but all of them have built on each other to put me in this position where I can work on something that matters."

Hear Raikes discuss his work in the video below.

A version of this story first appeared on Health Sciences Connect. 

 

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