Yesterday, I had my head examined.
Seriously though, after the Packed Lunch at the Wellcome Collection a couple of weeks ago, I’ve been in contact with the charming Dr. Joe Devlin and his assistant Magdalena and (very suddenly) I found myself at UCL, Bedford Way, yesterday afternoon.
Signing in as a visitor, I asked for directions to BUCNI, (the Birkbeck-UCL Centre for Neuroimaging) and was all set to wend my way into unknown territory when I heard my name called. It was Magdalena, and one of her fellow UCL neuroscientists (a lovely MSc student called Manali). Apparently they had seen my picture on this blog, so knew who they were looking for. So if you’re reading, hello! *wave*
We headed down to the basement – lots of codes and locks and passwords – there are warning signs all over MRI suites, “WARNING: no entry for those with pace makers” etc. MRI is essentially a huge magnetic field, so going in their with anything that could be affected by such a field is generally considered a Bad Idea. I had deliberately avoided wearing any jewellery for the event, but I was also asked to remove my belt and, just to be on the sure side, my shoes. And no mobile phones or credit cards please: they will die a horrible, horrible death.
After a screening and information process (and the customary signing of a form), the cheery, friendly trio ushered me into the MRI room. Joe then set me up on the MRI bed, explaining what he was doing and why he was doing it. He gave me lots of cushions to make sure I wouldn’t get too crampy lying in the machine, and a set of headphones too block out some of the noise of the machine (despite these, it was still incredibly noisy).
Joe told me what sort of noises I could expect, and that there would be a 2 second pause halfway through – so don’t worry, it hasn’t broken down, but at least I’d know it was halfway done. He asked that I stay as still as I could, for clarity of the image, and gave me a “squeezy thingy” that I could squeeze to set off an alarm if anything was wrong. I didn’t need to use it at any point, but it was reassuring to know it was there if I did need it. He did mention that people do sometimes fall asleep whilst in the scanner (the scan takes 12 minutes, so just enough time for a power nap) and it was fine if I felt like doing the same. I considered it, but it was so blinkin’ loud, I’m not sure how anyone ever manages to.
The scan itself was quick and painless. Definitely do not go for this if you are claustrophobic though: when you are wheeled in to the machine, that is pretty much it. You, in a big metal tube. Fortunately, I feel quite comforted by enclosed spaces, and I liked to imagine I was in a cocoon.
When the machine starts up, trust me, you know it. A series of loud, pulsing hums, of various speeds, and some undertones of cranking and beeping. Like most repetitive noises (especially when there is more than one layer of sound), my mind liked to rearrange this into some sort of music – it was like being at a new age rave. That, or it was a bit John-Cage-y.
The 2-second pause came, then another 6 minutes of John Cage. And then it was over. I had a bit of pins and needles from lying perfectly still for quarter of an hour (I say perfectly still – I did wiggle my toes once or twice), but that swiftly went. Joe wheeled me out of the machine, asked me how I felt and said, with some sciencey delight, “Do you want to see your brain?”. Of course I did 😀
And then..? Well, you’ll have to wait and see. I’m hoping to get some jpegs through from Joe soon, so I can share with you the “uncommon” shape of my brain. Pure, unadulterated, geeky joy.
Image credits: UCL Bedford Way building from e-architect.co.uk, MRI scanner from BUCNI’s own website