Good evening, one and all!
First up, a couple of announcements. The first is due a change in schedule, I’ll be changing the update day of this from Thursday to Friday – reason being we’ve just been slammed with a compulsory three-hour stats lab on Thursday afternoons, which is fine, but leaves me mentally a bit wiped out. Therefore, happy Friday!
Might also mean I get it out a bit more regularly than I have been for the last couple of weeks! I’ll confess half of that is fatigue and half of that is my piece of crap laptop screwing me around again. The fix was, weirdly, removing my anti-virus software, so I’m feeling a bit virtually vulnerable right now. Is it going to stop me illegally streaming Yuri on Ice? Absolutely not.
But anyway, after the angst of a couple of weeks ago, and with blowing all your minds with cute on mindfulness, I want to talk about something cool that happened last week – namely, that I got to have a go in an fMRI scanner.
For anyone who’s not familiar with MRI (or Magnetic Resonance Imaging) technology, what a normal MRI scan does is take a picture of your brain or body in the state it’s in at a given moment, by aligning all the water cells in your body to a strong magnetic field and measuring the time it takes for them to realign themselves back into their natural state. Different tissues have different amounts of water in them, hence the multi-layered image. An fMRI (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) takes it one step further and, as the name would suggest, scans the brain as it functions, using the level of oxygen in the blood – the BOLD signal. Not in real-time, unfortunately, we’re not that good yet, but with enough spatial accuracy that we can pinpoint the areas which are active when performing a cognitive task. It’s not something many people will get to do outside of research or a clinical procedure – and even then it’s so expensive to run that even within research it’s not something which gets used a lot – and I consider myself quite lucky that I got to take part.
The scanner itself is, in its purest form, a huge spinning magnet, so before entering the scanner I had to take my hoodie off (metal eyelets), all my piercings out (for obvious reasons) and answer a bunch of questions about my dental history (though it turns out normal fillings are just fine). Getting stuck to the inside of this thing is, I imagine, not fun. There are some really funny videos somewhere of a bunch of research scientists mucking around with the magnetic field (because we’re serious academics doing serious academic things), and this thing is seriously strong. Like, 30,000 times the magnetic field of Earth kind of strong.
Not that I was worried about this, or anything.
Nah, that was fine. I was more worried about the fact that the hole my body was being inserted into was no more than a couple of feet across, if that. Which makes sense if you’re trying to take an image through someone’s skull. It’s the same principle as X-Rays – you have to get up close and personal before they can get a decent image. And two sets of ear plugs. Think of a pneumatic drill being used right outside your window and then turn the volume up a bit – that was what it would have sounded like without them. It was still loud as hell even with them in. So as I’m sitting on the ‘bed,’ if you like, the researcher makes me plug my ears with those soft foam plugs you get in nightclubs and on shooting ranges, and then put a pair of ear defenders over my ears as well. I had to yell “What?” a few times before I could hear whatever else he was trying to say; which was a good thing. Then I lay back into the headrest, which was like a scoop with a cushion inside, had my knees propped up by a triangular cushion, and was handed a button box and told, ‘Just relax.’
And then the scary part. So the hole through the scanner is a bit like a classic doughnut – it goes all the way through and out the other side. The screen where the task I’ll be doing is on the other side, but to see it, they had to fit a kind of mask or clamp over my head which had a mirror attached to it. It wasn’t flush with my head but it was close enough to be weird. It took a couple of tries to get it right – for some reason the attachment wouldn’t fit on the headrest – but a few minutes later it was fixed and I had a front seat view of the approaching back of the scanner as they rolled me into the tube. Remember how I said it was only a couple of feet across? I moved my arm to try and get comfortable and instantly whacked the side of it. Big incentive to keep still. (And you need to keep deathly still or the images come out fuzzy). I’m actually okay in confined spaces – at least, I prefer them over wide expanses, definitely – so once I was in there it wasn’t a big deal. The big deal comes next.
As with basically anyone who has autism or autistic traits, I have an absolute horror of sudden loud noises. If there’s one thing guaranteed about fMRI scanners, it’s sudden, loud noises. So the starting of the scanner was the most terrifying part. The headphones muffled the worst of it but there was a series of dull clicks and then a sudden, huge mechanical whirr, and I felt the thing shudder to life. But then, once that was over, I started to relax. It made a rhythmic series of loud clicks – and rhythmic is the key word here. I like rhythmic. It’s predictable and I can deal with it. That was the initial anatomical scan. The researcher can talk to you by intercom, so he comes over the airwaves and he says, “Okay, we’re gonna start the real scan now.”
I was expecting more of the same. Oh no. Louder and bleep-ier. But still rhythmic, so once I’d gotten used to it, it was easy to tune out. But this point was when I started to feel the magnet. Like weird sort of pulling pressure that started on my right and moved around me slowly as the scan kicked into life. Suddenly I was glad they made me take my piercings out.
Another thing I never expected was the warmth. It’s a huge piece of electrical equipment, not to mention the magnet inside is spinning at stupid-RPM and kicking off a vast amount of heat. Never heard the air-con come on though, even though it must have because I never broke a sweat. The task itself wasn’t all that interesting – just looking for duplicates of pictures and whacking a button on the button box – so between the two of them I almost dozed off. Four blocks of that separated by another anatomical scan – by which point the cushion on the headrest had developed a ridge that was digging into the back of my skull. Never moved my head though – ‘remarkably still,’ he said afterwards, so score one for my pain tolerance!
Just goes to show, I suppose – there are some situations where you just gotta relax and let it all happen. This does not ring true for 95% of my life, but for the moments it does, I do cherish them.
Though maybe not so much when I got out of the scanner and my head refused to stop spinning, from being lying down for so long. You win some, you lose some. At least I didn’t actually faint.
So, yes, an experience. One I would recommend to anyone who is neither claustrophobic nor scared of loud noises. But they all do their best to make sure you’re comfortable, and the panic button is always there if you need it.
And I get a cool picture of my brain to yell at whenever it starts messing me around.
Stay awesome, everybody.
Skull and Brain