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The world’s largest health imaging study, funded by the Medical Research Council, Wellcome Trust, and the British Heart Foundation is launched today. It will create the biggest collection of scans of internal organs, and transform the way scientists study a wide range of diseases.

UK Biobank data analysis and visualisation: Fidel Alfaro Almagro, Karla Miller, Mark Jenkinson and Stephen Smith (FMRIB Oxford)

The £43m study will involve imaging the brain, heart, bones, carotid arteries and abdominal fat of 100,000 current participants of UK Biobank, a visionary project set up in 2006 by the MRC & Wellcome Trust to create a research resource of half a million people across the UK to improve health.

The multi-organ scans will be analysed alongside the vast data already collected from UK Biobank participants. This extra layer of data, for all health scientists to access, will give new perspectives on the best way to prevent and treat multi-faceted conditions like arthritis, coronary heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease and osteoporosis. It will also spark novel ways to analyse and interpret scans, with potential benefits for research as well as for the investigation of patients in the future.   

For the last ten years UK Biobank has gathered huge quantities of data on its 500,000 participants – including their lifestyle, weight, height, diet, physical activity and cognitive function, as well as genetic data from blood samples. Linkage to a wide range of health records is also under way, including data from general practices.

Tackling brain conditions

Professor Stephen Smith, of the Oxford University Centre for Functional MRI of the Brain (FMRIB), leads the brain imaging component of the study along with Professor Karla Miller, also of FMRIB. Stephen says that further value will be added because of advances that will take place in the way in which these complex images are analysed.

The brain imaging data is incredibly rich – 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’
- Professor Stephen Smith

'UK Biobank will be by far the largest brain imaging study ever conducted. It will not only provide valuable insight into common conditions like dementia, but also capture early markers of more rare neurological disorders like motor neuron disease (ALS). We aim to discover new early signs and risk factors of disease, in the hope that earlier targeted treatment, or changes in lifestyle, could prevent major diseases from ever happening,' he said. The addition of genetic data and the analyses of blood samples and data collected from lifestyle questionnaires will further strengthen the resource.