Silent MRI: improving access to neuroimaging research

A blog by Nikou Louise Damestani, a Final Year NIHR Maudsley BRC PhD Candidate in the Department of Neuroimaging, on the benefits and her research into silent MRI.

The Impact of Loudness

Loud noise is always a problem. Busy roads can affect our ability to sleep at night. Standing near a speaker at a concert can leave a ringing sound in our ears for hours. We can’t hear announcements on the London Underground when going through that noisy tunnel. We struggle to concentrate while working from home when there is building work outside our window. In fact, loud environments tend to worsen many of our day-to-day experiences and can be really distressing.

In MRI research, the noise produced by the MRI scanner can be at the same sound level as standing next to a speaker at a concert. This means that it is compulsory for all participants in MRI research to wear ear protection. But what if the earplugs aren’t applied correctly? And what if our participant is already very sensitive to sound? Participating in MRI research involves laying down on a table in an enclosed environment completely alone, so the addition of loud noise inevitably increases anxiety and discomfort for many people. It is completely understandable that many participants may not want to be involved in MRI research at all as a result.

Loudness and Accessibility of fMRI Research

The MRI technique that I work with is functional MRI (fMRI). Conventional fMRI, using a technique known as “gradient-echo echo-planar imaging”, has been used in thousands of neuroscience studies to investigate the link between behaviour and the brain. Conventional fMRI is incredibly loud, one of the loudest techniques we use with MRI, because of vibrations produced from the internal magnets. Although ways to reduce or change the scanning sounds have been explored, there are no methods that remove the loud noise that can be applied across all fMRI studies.

This limits the accessibility of fMRI research to participants, which has profound effects on the interpretation of our studies. If participants do not want to be scanned, or if participants are excluded because they are hyper-sensitive to loud noise, then we as researchers are missing out on deepening our understanding of the brain. For example, hyper-sensitivity to sound is a common experience for those with autism spectrum disorder. If we perform a study that aims to identify the characteristics of brain function in autism spectrum disorder, but we exclude everyone who is sensitive to sound, then how can we be sure we are finding all the characteristics of interest?

Making fMRI Quieter with Looping Star

I am working in collaboration with GE Healthcare on optimising a software-based silent fMRI technique, known as Looping Star, to address these limitations. The name originates from the way we program how the magnets behave in the MRI scanner, which reduces the vibrations that they produce. Looping Star is a completely new technique and has roots in a technique from the 1990s known as “Rotating Ultra-fast Imaging Sequence, or RUFIS”. Advances in the technological capabilities of MRI scanners are what have brought techniques similar to RUFIS back to the forefront of MRI research developments.

We aim to show that removing the loud scanning noise means that we can more reliably interpret our results whilst improving accessibility to fMRI research. I have recently published a study that shows, for the first time, that Looping Star can be used with an auditory fMRI task. The auditory task involved identifying different sound tones, which has been particularly important for studies involving participants with autism spectrum disorder. We scanned a group of participants with both conventional fMRI and Looping Star fMRI in two scanning sessions. For the conventional fMRI scan, we replicated the conditions from a previous study to make sure the auditory tones could be heard in the noisy environment. We found that the activity identified by each technique was consistent, supporting the use of Looping Star in future research.

The Future of Silent MRI

Demonstrating the use of a silent fMRI technique is incredibly exciting, as it opens the possibility of performing more advanced tasks across cohorts that previously couldn’t be scanned.

I am now in the final year of my PhD and I hope to keep exploring the capabilities of this technique across such a range of tasks. In particular, I’d like to explore using different auditory tasks with cohort who are hyper-sensitive to sound, so that we can build a more detailed picture of auditory processing in the brain.

Our team in the Department of Neuroimaging are also developing other silent MRI techniques, and we hope to produce the first fully silent MRI procedure. My goal is ultimately to make MRI research comfortable and accessible for all research participants, so we can work together to better understand the brain – but quietly. After all, silence is golden! 

'Silent MRI: improving access to neuroimaging research' is a blog written by Nikou Louise Damestani. She tweets from @Nikou_LD and is a Final Year NIHR Maudsley BRC PhD Candidate in the Department of Neuroimaging at IoPPN.

Tags: Neuroimaging -

By NIHR Maudsley BRC at 3 Jun 2021, 10:00 AM

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