On 16 March 2015, the University of Oxford Centre for Functional MRI of the Brain (FMRIB) invited members of the public to visit the control room of its Ultra High Field MRI scanner as part of activities for Brain Awareness Week, and the Oxford Biomedical Research Centre Open Weeks.
In the morning, 90 local school children visited FMRIB. While half of them were in the scanner room, the other half were treated to talks and demonstrations by neuroscientists from FMRIB and beyond. Pierre Petitet and Laurie Josephs challenged children to throw balls into buckets when wearing vision bending goggles, to demonstrate the plasticity of the brain. Claire Sexton talked about the effects of ageing on the brain. Charlotte Hartwright (Department of Experimental Psychology) talked about mathematics and the brain, Betina Ip (Department of Physiology, Anatomy and Genetics) about how we can see in depth, and Sezgi Goksan how newborn babies feel pain. The children left these presentation full of enthusiasm for science.
Then in the evening 30 visitors watched a demonstration of the kind of research that is carried out in this part of the Nuffield Department of Clinical Neurosciences. Researchers James Kolasinski and Min-Ho Lee volunteered to take turns in the scanner to complete finger tapping and visual tasks. The visitors saw the researchers' brain activation appear on the screen.
Physicist Stuart Clare explained how the extremely high magnetic field produced by the scanner allows us to scan the brain in finer detail than is possible on standard hospital scanners. There are whole groups of researchers at FMRIB looking at how to improve the ways in which brain images are acquired, and Stuart compared the effect of their work to the way in which innovations in Formula 1 car design trickle down to make better mass production cars. This research will eventually ensure that standard hospital scans are quicker and more informative.
Vision scientist Holly Bridge showed an animation on how functional MRI works called 'A Spin Around the Brain' (created by Oxford Sparks). She explained how functional MRI has revealed that the visual system in the brain can be active even when we are just imagining seeing objects.
The audience then got the chance to devise their own experiment. This involved predicting which brain areas would be active and light up on the screen when certain tasks were undertaken in the scanner. The audience asked the volunteer researchers to do their 17 times table and sing a song!
The visitors were interested to know how the scanner was used to study migraine, Parkinson’s disease and other conditions.