Here at Neuroskeptic there’s a lot of talk about brain scanning, most commonly functional MRI. I’ve blogged about all kinds of studies, methods, criticisms and advances in fMRI technology. But what about the people on the receiving end – the volunteers?
What follows is meant to be half useful advice for participants, and half insight into the difficulties in running an fMRI study.
The 10 Commandments for fMRI Volunteers
1. Thou Shalt Turn Up…: Please. If you don’t, we’ll waste a lot of money (ballpark figure: $1000 an MRI scanning slot).
2. …On Time: If you’re late, the whole scanner schedule gets messed up. All the scans later in the day will be delayed, so our friends will think we’re jerks. Turning up really late could even alter the results of some experiments, because brain activity changes over the course of the day.
3. Thou Shalt Be Patient: Because your scan may be delayed (see #2).
4. Thou Shalt Not Fidget: Before the scan we’ll ask you to stay still, and we mean it. Any movement will affect our data. That camera that lets us keep an eye on you in the scanner? It’s partly for your safety, but also so we can spot if your fidgeting. If you do have to move, try and do it in the gaps between the scan sequences rather than in the middle of a test.
5. Thou Absolutely Shalt Not Sneeze: Really. It’s bad news for all concerned.
6. Thou Shalt Not Drink… any coffee or tea before the experiment. Caffeine affects the brain, you see. But then again, we don’t want you to go without caffeine you’d normally drink, because the withdrawal symptoms would also affect the brain. So, er, we’re in a bit of a bind, and neuroscientists disagree on what to do about this. We secretly wish all our volunteers were Mormon for this reason.
7. Thou Shalt Be Clever… enough to understand the instructions of the psychological tasks you’re asked to do, even if we’re terrible at explaining them.
8. …But Not Too Clever: If you ‘get’ the purpose of the task, we’re in trouble. We want brain activity caused by the test, not by thinking about the test. So just trust us, everything is exactly as it seems. We never try and mess with your mind. Honest.
9. Thou Shalt Be Metal-Free: We can’t MRI scan you if you might have metal around, on, inside, or otherwise about your body. Maybe you have jewellery or a piercing that you think will be easy to remove before the scan? Please check to see if it’s actually going to come off. If your wedding ring’s stuck on because you’ve gained weight, we’ll have a problem. I once spent 30 minutes trying to get someone’s earrings off.
10. Thanks: Seriously. We couldn’t do neuroscience without you!