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On Friday 12 September, the 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.

Stuart Clare talking to members of the public about the scanner
Stuart Clare talking to members of the public about the scanner

The opportunity was part of the Oxford Open Doors event organised by the Oxford Preservation Trust.

Over 40 visitors watched a demonstration of the kind of research that is carried out in this part of the Nuffield Department of Clinical Neurosciences. Researchers Matthew Robson and Stephanie Larcombe 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 (demonstrated nicely by the volunteers in the scanner).

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 think about disgusting food, poke out their tongues and do mental arithmetic!

The visitors were interested to know how the scanner was used to study depression, Alzheimer's disease and other conditions. 

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