New autism screening technology for the BMRI
30 July 2013
Being in an MRI can be a daunting experience - confined in a tight tunnel space, remaining absolutely still, and wearing headphones to try and block out the extremely loud noise. It's not pleasant for adults, much less children.
Enter the 'training scanner', a device that looks and sounds just like the real thing, to prepare young patients for the main event.
The device has just been installed at the University of Sydney's Brain and Mind Research Institute (BMRI) and will allow researchers to guide young children through the process of being scanned for an MRI and observe their reactions and experiences.
Team researcher Associate Professor Adam Guastella, said simulation MRI machines allow us to acclimatise people to the scanning environment.
"Or put another way, to make it less scary," he said.
Associate Professor Guastella and his colleagues Associate Professor Jim Lagopoulos, Professor Ian Hickie and Professor Max Bennett were awarded a grant earlier this year to study early childhood brain development. To do so, they required a training scanner.
Associate Professor Guastella and the team want to develop a better understanding of normal brain development in children, as well as brain development in children with disorders including autism and social anxiety.
"As a child develops, the brain not only becomes bigger but its composition changes," he said.
"The brains of young children have more neurons than those of adults, but there are fewer connections between the neurons. As early as three years of age, but possibly up to eight, around 70 percent of neural connections are pruned. It is thought that only unused connections are pruned, so that the remaining brain matter has improved efficiency.
"It can be difficult to scan children in an MRI because they must be very still. Normal children can be excitable, and with movement the scanning image is degraded. Too much movement and you lose that scan altogether, and you only know when the child comes out of the machine that the scan has been wasted."
While clinical scans of children are relatively frequent, the cost involved in research scanning - around $750 per scan - and the high chance of getting a blurred image mean there are very few research projects involving child MRI studies.
"The problems associated with taking MRI scans of children are exacerbated when those children have autism spectrum disorders," Associate Professor Guastella said.
"As well as a dislike of novel situations, these children often present with co-morbid anxiety issues, so being able to put them at ease and creating familiarity with the MRI process is particularly valuable.
"The training scanner is not just a passive device. The child is confined in a small space and speakers produce the correct sounds, just as they will hear them in the MRI. There are very sophisticated sensors inside, allowing us to monitor movement of the head and see just how still the child is.
"We sit at a console and have all this data fed to us. It may take a few practise sessions before the child is habituated and ready to move on to the real scan."
The scanner will round out the work of the BMRI imaging facilities believed to be the first specialist autism imaging centre in Australia. Staff have travelled to top imaging centres in the world to be trained to use the device, including UCLA, Stanford and Philadelphia.
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