Environment & Science

Brain transplant: UCLA's LONI neuro imaging lab is moving to USC

Arthur Toga (left) and Paul Thompson lead the Laboratory of Neuro Imaging. It's currently based in UCLA but will move to USC later this year.
Arthur Toga (left) and Paul Thompson lead the Laboratory of Neuro Imaging. It's currently based in UCLA but will move to USC later this year.
KPCC/Sanden Totten
Arthur Toga (left) and Paul Thompson lead the Laboratory of Neuro Imaging. It's currently based in UCLA but will move to USC later this year.
This image shows the grid structure of the major pathways of the brain. It was created using a scanner that's part of the Human Connectome Project, a five-year effort which is studying and mapping the human brain.
MGH-UCLA | Human Connectome Project

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The University of Southern California is about to get a brain boost.

The school is acquiring UCLA's Laboratory of Neuro ImagingThe research facility employs about 100 people who study and map the human brain. It's led by researchers Arthur Toga and Paul Thompson.

"We're on cloud nine," said Toga, who founded the lab 26 years ago. "This is a really exciting move for us. Being able to build a new program across town is really an opportunity of a lifetime."

In the past, the lap has studied disorders like autism and dementia, as well as memory and IQ. One of the researchers' bigger projects is ENIGMA, a collaborative brain mapping effort that involves 125 institutions around the world. This is the kind of work Thompson and Toga plan to take with them to USC. The lab will open at USC in the fall.

"We can really tackle some of the major problems in medicine and neuroscience," Thompson said.

Toga and Thompson said USC offered them new facilities and formal partnerships with other disciplines like medicine and engineering. Thompson said the pace of research at USC was appealing, too.

"Everything is fast. I think one of the things that both Arthur and I noticed is that there is an efficiency in speed in doing things that is very very refreshing and it makes people excited about getting on with things," he said.

The lab will be taking research grants worth 20 million a year with it to USC. The majority of its funding comes from government organizations like the National Institutes of Health. Researchers across the country said some of those grants are drying up because of sequestration cuts.

That's where a fundraising powerhouse like USC can help, said Provost Elizabeth Garrett.

"Philanthropy has always played a role with respect to basic science research," Garrett said. "Although the federal government has been there to fund some things... before you apply in a very competitive peer-reviewed process, you've got to show that the science is worth investing in."

Usually that means early work and testing. Garrett says private donations can help pay for the pricey equipment and initial research that gives a lab a leg up when applying for those grants.

Landing the Laboratory of Neuro Imaging is part of a much larger plan to turn USC into the world's leading research institution, Garrett said. The school is in the midst of a seven year campaign to raise $6 billion toward that goal.

It has hired other top scientists, like Andrew McMahon, a stem cell expert from Harvard and Steve Gruber, a cancer researcher formerly with the University of Michigan. 

Luring away star faculty is one thing, but getting an entire lab to relocate is "unprecedented", according to Elizabeth Scarborough, a Virginia-based marketing consultant specializing in colleges and universities.

She said hiring top talent like Thompson and Toga will not only help USC attract the best students, it'll aid fundraising efforts.

"This is very clearly an investment in their future," Scarborough said.

The move is a major loss for UCLA. Officials there did not return calls for comment.

In a statement, Chancellor Gene Block said he is "disappointed" that the lab is moving to the school's crosstown rival.

But he said UCLA will remain a player in the field. The school also runs the Staglin IMHRO Center for Cognitive Neuroscience