OK, I have to start by bursting your bubble of anticipation and tell you: I did NOT have TMS yesterday. Woe is me, but I am not allowed to have it at the moment, due to meds. Massive disappointment! We were all set and ready to go, did the final screening check and…. Bummer. I was disappointed. Magalena, Manali and Joe were disappointed. I apologised for wasting their time, but they were really lovely and apologised for wasting MY time (as if! I had a wonderful time!)
But all was not lost – I still spent about an hour at UCL with Magdalena and Manali, as they explained the process to me and answered all my questions.
They began with a quick description of how TMS works: as I understand it, a huge electrical current is sent through the figure of eight coil (which, as I mentioned previously, is insulated) – this creates an electromagnetic field, which will stimulate anything within a few centimetres of it (in the case of neuroscientific studies, this would be neurons in specific areas of the brain). Magdalena was allowed to give me a quick demo of how it works by zapping my arm (but not my head) – holding the coil over my right forearm, she set the machine to five short, successive pulses. I kept my hand still. When she turned on the machine, I watched my hand twitch, five times. It was incredibly bizarre.
So, applied to neurons, this stimulation causes neurons to fire, which then means that they’re effectively busy – if you wanted those neurons to do something else, too bad. This is especially interesting as it can help neuroscientists to work out which areas of the brain are involved in what particular cognitive functions. Dr Devlin and his team are currently doing research into language processing, and the involvement of the supramaginal gyrus. The purpose of the initial MRI scan was to pinpoint the location of MY supramarginal gyrus.
And this is where my uncommonly shaped brain becomes a challenge: there are large folds on either side of the brain (damnit, I can’t for the life of me remember the name), and on typical brains, this fold runs backwards and then curves up. My right side does – my left side runs straight backwards (if any of the UCL team are fact checking me, please feel free to set the record straight – I should have taken notes!) Now, this is a problem because locating the supramarginal gyrus usually relies on pinpointing the top of the upwards curve of this fold. But on my left side, there is no upwards curve, and this is the side that they wanted to zap with TMS. Bummer.
However, when I arrived at the lab yesterday, they had pinpointed six possible areas for activation, so were all ready to go. Obviously, we didn’t “go”, but the data is all there if and when I return in the future to have my TMS (I’m hoping early next year).
But that wasn’t all they could show me – they also attached a groovy head strap to me, and pointed me at a camera. Then, using a pointer, Magdalena and Manali were able to map my ears and nose to the ears and nose of my 3D MRI image. Now, when I moved, so did the 3D image on screen; it was fascinating. The TMS coil can interact with the camera system, meaning that if Magdalena were to hold the coil up to my head, the computer would tell her whether or not it was positioned in the right place (with regards to one of those six regions I mentioned earlier).
But enough stalling. I desperately want to show you the images of my brain. I’m very proud of my brain. Joe said that the detail on my cerebellum came out particularly well, so I must have been lying very still indeed. He sent me a high resolution file of all the images, plus a link to the software used to run it, so I played with this all evening yesterday – I can zoom through my 3D brain, through all three planes! Very exciting. Although a little creepy to plunge through my own eyeballs.
Obviously it’s more exciting to see your own brain than someone else’s, but I hope you like these. I have labelled just a couple of areas of interest (my nice frilly cerebellum, and my chunky corpus collosum, the massive connector between the two hemispheres), because I didn’t want to crowd the images (plus, I’m lazy). Enjoy!
Fancy getting up close and personal with your own brain? Dr Devlin and his team are keen to get more eager volunteers for their research. Obvious no-nos are people with metal in their bodies, but they have a screening process, so they will let you know whether or not you’re eligible. Feel free to get in touch with them via Joe, and tell them I sent you!
Image credits: thank you to the Neurobiology of Language lab for taking pictures of my brain, and to Magdalena for letting me pose with the TMS machine! I had a wonderful time, and hope to see you again soon in the not-to-distant future
DISCLAIMER: Views and scientific inaccuracies expressed here are my own. If you want to correct me in any way, please get in touch!