COVER STORY

BASEMENT WIZARDS DEFY THE MAGNET

Behind the breakthrough discoveries and everyday operations of PBS are the invisible superheroes of science – the technical staff who literally make it happen.


Among the many challenges they face is developing technology for use in the fMRI brain scanner, the powerful neuroimaging device that uses electromagnetic current to track blood flow in the brain. Access to the scanner is one of the department’s great attractions, so to speak, and is itself a magnet for top-notch faculty and grad students to the program.

Among such faculty and students are Professor Karin James and graduate student Sophia Vinci-Booher. Both consider themselves lucky to have this unique situation in which to pursue their research: continuous access to the imaging facility and the support of those with the technical know-how to build whatever they need to accommodate it.

Yet some technical demands are greater than others. Vinci-Booher, for instance, a member of James’ Cognition and Action Neuroimaging (CAN) Lab, toiled steadily for two years with IT engineers Jeff Sturgeon and Alex Shroyer to develop the technology needed to circumvent the powerful magnetic force that stood in the way of placing a digital tablet inside the fMRI brain scanner.

Such a device would provide otherwise unattainable “feedback in real time” for their study of handwriting and brain development, and important data to pursue one of the major topics of James’ lab and Vinci-Booher’s research – how children’s earliest handwriting experiences, the formation of individual letters by hand, might serve as a lynchpin for their future literacy.

The makings of an MRI-safe digital tablet, however, is no small feat. The magnetic field in the scanner is so strong—greater than the Earth’s magnetic field, in fact—that any metallic substance necessary for the tablet’s functioning would most likely be destroyed instantly. The team nonetheless tackled the problem steadily, week after week through trial and error and multiple troubleshooting sessions.

Sturgeon explains the process by which they worked “to ‘camouflage’ the tablet so the MRI couldn’t pick it up as a signal. The first time we put one in as a test to see if it would catch on fire. Then we got to the point where it would work part of the time, by moving the wires around. It was like tuning an antenna. Now we finally have it down. We know where to position everything.”

Shroyer, a PBS staff member at the time now at the School of Informatics and Computing, lays out the scenario. “Sophia would go into the MRI and would tell us how the device was responding, while Jeff and I stayed in the control room.” But the scanner is so loud and the technical issues so complicated that, he said, “it was like working with a partner, who is both under water and on a different continent.”

The eventual success led them straight to the U.S. Patent Office, where they and the university attained a “provisional patent,” a kind of patent that would enable a corporation to adopt their invention and turn it into a marketable product, more readily usable to others.

As Vinci-Booher, who first convinced the technical team to pursue the patent, explains it, “I had searched everywhere to get something like this. I just knew it didn’t exist and I thought, ‘You have to do something with this.’”

"If you can get to preschool children and help them learn letters and letter-writing, it would have a cascading effect on their future reading.”

-Karin James

The eventual success led them straight to the U.S. Patent Office, where they and the university attained a “provisional patent,” a kind of patent that would enable a corporation to adopt their invention and turn it into a marketable product, more readily usable to others.

As Vinci-Booher, who first convinced the technical team to pursue the patent, explains it, “I had searched everywhere to get something like this. I just knew it didn’t exist and I thought, ‘You have to do something with this.’”

As she and James explain, an MRI-safe tablet would have widespread uses. It could be used, for example, to study the effects of video games on brain activity or how well kids learn with digital devices, a phenomenon fast becoming the norm in schools. It would have practical applications, too, enabling doctors or researchers to communicate with those inside the scanner or to enable research participants and medical patients to occupy themselves in the scanner for long periods of time, thus making it easier and more amenable for use.

James and Vinci-Booher are likewise using the new device for work that seeks to answer pressing questions about foundational literacy skills. Their work has profound implications for the teaching and learning of those skills in preschool and elementary school classrooms, especially as we increase our dependence on digital technology. Their findings so far suggest, for instance, that actively learning to write individual letters by hand helps to create – in a way that typing on a keyboard does not – networks in the brain critical to developing reading and literacy skills.

“We know that a lot of the problems with reading acquisition happen at a very early age,” says James. "If you can get to preschool children and help them learn letters and letter-writing, it would have a cascading effect on their future reading.”

Perhaps the day is not far off for the bumper sticker which says, “If you can read this, thank a cognitive neuroscientist.” To which we can add, “And the invisible superheroes behind them.”