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Tears and Water Protons – Behind the Scenes at Cheltenham – Day 1/6

By Thomas A Roberts, on 13 June 2012

CABI at Cheltenham

Katy Ordidge demystifies the physics of MRI

Behind the Scences at Cheltenham is a daily blog from the UCL CABI team at Cheltenham Science Festival. Every day a member of the team will be talking about their experiences of running a stand.

Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3 | Day 4 | Day 5 | Day 6 |

Two hours into my first shift at Cheltenham and I’d already made one child cry. Not quite the start I’d anticipated.

My colleagues and I from the Centre for Advanced Biomedical Imaging (CABI for short) are at the Cheltenham Science Festival to demonstrate how magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanners work and why they are important.

Our “MRI: Can You Scan It?” stand is pitched in the centre of the Discover Zone inside the grand Cheltenham Town Hall. The main draw is a tabletop – in the loosest sense of the word – 1 Tesla Bruker MRI scanner which people can feed with fruit and other small objects to produce live images. Accompanying this are a couple of presentations explaining how MRI works and how it can be applied to imaging your brain.

I was in charge of talking through the latter slideshow and explaining the basics of fMRI: functional magnetic resonance imaging. You’ve probably seen fMRI images in the papers: regions of the brain ‘light up’ in response to a stimulus such as touch, smell or sight. The waterworks incident occurred when I was demonstrating one region of the brain we can probe, using the video below of a dead snake.

Keep your eyes focused firmly on the snake itself:

Sorry about that, I lied. The young child watching the video didn’t appreciate my misdirection either and bluntly expressed this when he started pouring his eyes out. Mission accomplished however – although rather too well in this case – as I’d definitely demonstrated how we can stimulate your fear response. I’d lost the young boy at this point when I tried to explain how his amygdala would light up if he watched the video during an fMRI scan.

If I’ve learned one thing from my first day on the stand, it’s that the Festival draws a hugely diverse audience. In contrast to the child whose dreams I’ve turned into nightmares this evening, one senior gentleman stood inches from the screen during the video and didn’t so much as twitch when the monster snapped at the screen.

Another group of secondary school boys were much less easily pleased when they anticipated the snake wasn’t actually dead. The reaction from most though has been a mix of intrigue and excitement. Hopefully, I can explain MRI to the rest of the Cheltenham crowd without reducing them to tears.

Check out the gallery of CABI images below:

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