Brain-imaging with entertainment
Brain imaging may have transformed scientist's understanding of our most complex organ - but try getting a three-year-old to lie still, cocooned inside a machine, for 45 minutes while an image is being taken.
An Australian university is now in possession of the world's first child-friendly brain-imaging device, which can keep kids occupied by displaying a movie or a game.
Researchers will use the custom-built machine to study brain development during early childhood.
One of the first studies to be performed will image the brains of children with cochlear implants to understand how the brain processes information from the hearing devices.
"We know early intervention yields the best cognitive outcomes for children because brain plasticity is optimal in the first few years of life," said Stephen Crain, the director of ARC centre of Excellence in Cognition and its Disorders at Macquarie University, where the unit will be housed.
"Using the new system, we plan to investigate how the brain is able to achieve so much more during this period using the same information," he said.
The machine, called a cochlear implant MEG, or magnetoencephalography, processes brain function by measuring magnetic fields outside the head.
"When we process information like language, neurons are firing [inside the brain], and whenever neurons are firing they create tiny electric currents," he said.
Surrounding these electric currents are magnetic fields, which travels through the blood, tissue and skull and can be measured by the imaging machine.
"The child can lie in the machine and watch a movie or play a video game," Professor Crain said.
One of the most common brain imaging techniques, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) - which measures blood flow in neurons - requires a patient to lie in a noisy tunnel for 45 minutes with their head cocooned in a helmet.
"You don't want to put your kid in there unless it's necessary, such as suspecting they have a tumour or for pre-surgical mapping," Professor Crain said.
As well as studying people with cochlear implants, the machine will also allow scientists to study language development in children.
Previously, this has been a difficult study area for linguists because young children struggle to perform language tasks that scientists use to measure language comprehension in adults.
Now researchers can watch how children's brain respond to those tasks without them needing the verbal skills to respond.
Another benefits of the MEG is it could measure brain activity on a millisecond by millisecond response time, Professor Crain said.
"So it's very accurate," he said.