UK Biobank undertakes the world’s largest imaging study – and we need your help to make it a success!
UK Biobank imaging study is being rolled out across the country. This will give most UK Biobank participants the chance to participate in this exciting project.
Two new imaging centres are currently being developed – one in Reading and the other in Newcastle-upon-Tyne – to support the centre in Stockport, which has imaged more than 10,000 people already.
The centres will create the world’s biggest collection of scans of internal organs which will transform health research and the way scientists study a wide range of diseases.
The £43m project is funded by the Wellcome Trust, Medical Research Council and British Heart Foundation.
Cathie Sudlow, Professor of Neurology and Clinical Epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh, and UK Biobank’s Chief Scientist, said: “What makes it truly transformational is the opportunity to combine the rich imaging data with the wealth of other information already available or being collected from participants.”
Meanwhile, hundreds of scientists are already using the rich information provided by participants on their health, lifestyle and wellbeing. Many have already published their results, and many more will do so in the coming year.
IMAGING – A BIG STUDY TO TRANSFORM OUR UNDERSTANDING
The UK Biobank imaging study has been developed by a large number of experts working together, and we are grateful to them all.
Professor Stephen Smith, of the Oxford University Centre for Functional MRI of the Brain, leads the brain imaging component of the study. “The data are incredibly rich,” he said. “We have one kind of image that tells us about brain anatomy, another that tells us about complex patterns of brain activity, and yet another that tells us about the brain’s ‘wiring’.”
Imaging: Learning about fat distribution
With increasing evidence to suggest that fat distribution, rather than the amount of fat, is important for determining an individual’s risk of future disease, abdominal MRI provides an exciting opportunity to examine the predictive importance of particular fat depots and the relative distribution of fat for the development of disease. Using images collected during the UK Biobank scans, scientists can examine the volumes and quantity of external and visceral fat. Scientists can investigate the effects of fat around the liver, pancreas and the skeletal muscle and look at the volumes of kidneys and lungs.
Imaging: how can you help?
UK Biobank participants are crucial to the success of this imaging project. Invites are already on their way to some of you – but it will take many years to work our way through 500,000 participants. Attending may mean a longer journey than when you joined the project. We are sorry for the inconvenience. Scanning assessment centres are very expensive to build, and it is just not possible to re-locate them in a large number of centres. You will not receive feedback from the scan, but if a potentially serious abnormality is spotted during the procedure then we will tell you and your doctor.
Professor Paul Matthews, Head of the Division of Brain Sciences at Imperial College London, chairs the group of academic experts who have been supporting UK Biobank to create this additional resource. He said: “One of the crucial questions we can start to answer is, what happens in the brain years before dementia, stroke or other disorders are diagnosed? Can we understand it and find new ways to treat or prevent the onset? Scientists will also be better able to discover how brain diseases such as depression, stroke or Alzheimer’s disease are affected by our genes, environments and lifestyles.”
Imaging: heart, brain, bones, abdomen and arteries
- Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) of the heart chamber diameter, the volume of blood flow, and how the heart changes as it pumps blood around the body, thickness of the heart wall and the size, shape and stiffness of the thoracic aorta, the vessel that delivers blood from the heart
- MRI of the brain structure and function, volumes of grey matter and the mapping of major brain connections
- MRI measures of abdominal fat including in the liver and pancreas
- Low energy X ray of bone density, osteoarthritic change in the spine, hip and knee, fractures in the spine, and fat distribution throughout the body
- Ultrasound of the carotid arteries that run either side of the neck to the brain
Imaging: suppose we spot a health problem?
UK Biobank has given considerable thought to the way in which it handles so called ‘incidental findings’ – when potentially serious health abnormalities like a tumour or aneurysm are spotted in a someone who has volunteered to be scanned.
Imaging is not a health check and our scanning staff are not looking for health abnormalities. When they do arise, most apparent observations turn out to be non-serious. Informing participants may lead to unnecessary worry, and further costly, invasive and unnecessary investigations (which may themselves have risks).
UK Biobank has investigated how participants and their GPs feel about being advised of an incidental finding. There is, of course, a level of anxiety from participants. GPs worry about unnecessary follow-up which diverts time and money from other work.
UK Biobank‘s policy on incidental findings is that if a potentially serious abnormality is spotted by a radiographer (scanning technician) during the imaging visit it is referred to a radiologist (a doctor who specialises in reporting and interpreting imaging scans). If the radiologist agrees that the finding is potentially serious, the information is fed back to the participant and their GP. So far about 2% of participants have had an abnormality that a radiologist agrees is potentially serious. About one in three of these people turn out to have something clinically serious and two out of three turn out to be non-serious.
Professor Cathie Sudlow, UK Biobank Chief Scientist, said: “Our imaging assessment is designed to collect vital information for health research. It is not a health check. We are grateful to those participants who have already been scanned – and hope many others will take part in this exciting project.”
Did you see us on the BBC? Medical Correspondent Fergus Walsh was the first to be imaged. See what he had to say: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-K7u6EOngXU