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Going out with a Bang – Behind the Scenes at Cheltenham – Day 6/6

By Thomas A Roberts, on 18 June 2012

Brain Scan Live Lineup

The Brain Scan Live offenders line up

Behind the Scenes 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 |

Orchestrating and conducting a live MRI scan for an audience of more than 600 people is very hard. Very, very hard.

On the penultimate day, our boss and director of the Festival, Mark Lythgoe, phoned me. He was due to present a show the following day titled Brain Scan Live: Lies and Deception, and he wanted me to take an integral role behind the scenes.

The idea of the show was to use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to demonstrate that your brain doesn’t lie when presented with images that evoke a memorable response.

I was primarily tasked with constructing a crime scene where a volunteer from the audience would commit theft. The participant would then be taken to the nearby Cobalt Imaging Centre where they would be presented with pictures of the crime scene while undergoing an fMRI scan. In theory, photos from the crime scene would evoke a strong ‘lighting-up’ of the brain in the scans whereas photos of unfamiliar rooms would have little effect.

The first challenge was finding a room for the crime scene: we located a small office in the Cheltenham Town Hall. There was a distinct sense of irony when I had to explain to a stranger that I was rearranging her office and sifting through her desk drawers for a science experiment.

Despite her raised eyebrows, I convinced her I was telling the truth. Quickly I set about rearranging the room and planting some visual cues designed to evoke the volunteer’s recognition response during the scan. These included some crates of Coke cans, a mask replete with glowing green hair, some deliberately placed indoor plants, a dirty plate and a giant foam thumb pointing at the bounty. Furiously I photographed the office along with another four different control rooms before bed.

Crime Scene

The following morning we met the Cobalt team. They were a sea of calm while Mark, his co-host Professor Derek Jones and I were a bundle of nerves. As we discussed the logistics of the operation more and more, we envisaged more and more potential problems.

What if the video feed goes down? Or the audio? What if the office workers return and tidy the crime scene? What if the volunteer has an undiagnosed brain abnormality?! The Cobalt team had to run the scan on top of all this, yet somehow remained unflustered throughout.

Back at HQ, two more co-hosts, Radio 4 presenter Evan Davis and psychologist Professor Richard Wiseman, arrived ready to discuss the plan. More issues: What if the taxi breaks down en route to the Brain Centre? How do we pick a suitable volunteer with minimal chance of brain pathology? What if the live communications link dies? What if the scans fail miserably and show nothing?! This is science after all! We thrashed through the pitfalls convincing ourselves that every Plan B was a robust enough alternative, although the latter one was beyond our control.

The time came.

Evan Davis introduced the show and within five minutes our guinea pig was selected. I duly rushed her to the office crime scene. A new face greeted me when I arrived. I didn’t have time for this! After a swift explanation, he left for five minutes, just long enough for the volunteer to tear through the office hunting for the planted wallet – my wallet… Mark’s money! – hidden in a top drawer. Within two minutes she swiped the loot, memorised the crime scene and we were off again.

Another sprint to the taxi and we were driving to Cobalt. Gowned, pockets emptied of metal objects and our volunteer was slid into the scanner. I breathed a sigh of relief.

How premature. Moments later the live transmission crawled with 30-second delay! There was no other option, the first Plan B was enacted: Mark whipped out his mobile and broadcast the Imaging Centre team via speaker through a nearby microphone. State of the art!

Despite this, the first two scans were successfully relayed to the audience. A simple finger tapping exercise demonstrated a functional response as did showing pictures of her home amongst random locations.

Then: disaster. The scanner began beeping incessantly, the terminal froze; the system had crashed. Time was running out, but the crime scene test results had not been shown. The Cobalt team hurriedly rebooted the scanner (yes, turning it off and on again even works with MRI systems!). On stage, the hosts stalled and looked to the floor for questions to buy time.

Meanwhile, the volunteer and I were whisked back to the Festival in a taxi. She entered the arena to a hero’s applause and right on cue the Cobalt team restored the system with the final results: the fMRI response was most strongly evoked when viewing the crime scene. It had worked!

I breathed a final sigh of relief. Somehow, we’d pulled it off.

Elsewhere, over on the stand, further drama was unfolding. Earlier that day, the team had discovered the source of a noxious smell that had permeated the stall for the past two days.

A rotten pig trotter and a pair of lamb testicles.

To remedy this, scented candles were lit to mask the smell which lingered long after the offending bits of anatomy were disposed. Unfortunately, some bright spark left a sheet of ‘I Heart Science’ stickers next to the candle resulting in a minor pyrotechnics show! Needless to say, we’ll be sure to refrigerate any organic samples at future events…

Luckily, the scanner was still intact and the day’s imaged samples included a walnut, a lime, a lychee and the winning fruit pictured below. Can you guess what it is?:

MRI Kiwi

Answer: a kiwi.

Six, long, exhausting but rewarding days later and the Festival is finished for another year. We quickly lost any concept of how many people visited the stand. The event was a huge success for us and our partners at Bruker, and plans are already afoot for next year’s Festival. Hopefully this blog has gone some way to enlightening and inspiring you: you’ve got 51 weeks to think about what you want scanned next time!

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