Researchers are hoping a new "child-friendly" MRI machine at Toronto's Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital will lead to breakthroughs in understanding brain development and new treatments, including therapies for autism.
MRI stands for magnetic resonance imaging, a process that uses magnetic fields and radio waves to produce detailed cross-sectional images that can be turned into three-dimensional pictures of the inside of a person's body.
Melissa Thorne, 27, knows how intimidating it can be when you're inside an MRI, a large cylindrical scanner with a doughnut-shaped magnet and a tunnel in the centre.
"My first MRI was when I was newly born within a few weeks and I've probably had 20 or 30," said Thorne, who was born with spina bifida and hydrocephalus. She was a patient at Holland Bloorview for 18 years and now works there as a youth facilitator.
Being in an MRI, she says, can be difficult even for adults. Patients must hold very still for long periods of time, which is hard for young children.
"The noise and laying still for that long and being in ... a tube kind of tied down to a table can be very, very scary, especially when you are little and don't understand what's going on," said Thorne, who's been a big advocate for making the MRI suite at Holland Bloorview's Research Institute child-friendly, fully accessible and easily customized to a patient's needs.
While they're inside the centre's new scanner, kids can wear a headset to watch movies while the scan is happening. The machine is also quieter and takes much less time to process data, so children don't have to be in it as long. Kids can also choose whatever lighting and colour display they find most soothing.
"I'm so excited that we were able to make it a positive experience for our clients and their families," Thorne said.
And she hopes that means more children and their families will participate in Holland Bloorview's research programs.
Fabiana Bacchini's eight-year-old son, Gabriel Nikolakkis, has cerebral palsy and has been getting treatment at Holland Bloorview for most of his life. He had his first MRI when he was two.
"That was the first time we actually saw the brain damage because Gabriel was born prematurely. It would be great to have research to understand more, so other kids can have better treatments and outcomes, " Bacchini said.
Being able to make the MRI experience less scary and uncomfortable is a priority for researchers. While it's common to sedate infants and young kids during a diagnostic MRI, that is not allowed when the scan is done for research purposes, says Dr. Evdokia Anagnostou — the Canada Research chair in Translational Therapeutics in Autism
Anagnostou, the co-lead of the Bloorview Research Institute's Autism Research Centre, says because the MRI experience is difficult for some, whole populations of children have been excluded from research.
That's especially true for autistic children, who may have sensory issues and are unable to stay still for the amount of time required to complete a scan.
"Some children tolerate them and so we get to learn a lot about their brains and their brain development and some kids don't and so they don't contribute to our understanding of their brains," she said.
Because the MRI can be customized in whatever way that makes the child feel comfortable, Anagnostou says they hope to be able to scan more kids with a large range of developmental differences, which is an important aspect of her research.
"So it gives us the opportunity to look at many more kids, which we couldn't do before. And that is the part that makes it exciting — that kids that did not have access in the past will now have access."