18 Jul 2011

A Visit to the Mad Scientists' Lab

So they're not really mad. Not even a little miffed, if the truth be known. Priya Kumar, a researcher at the Rotman Research Institute/Baycrest Centre was actually pretty happy yesterday when I stopped in for my 12:30 appointment with the MRI machine. She's planning a wedding, and her excitement bubbled over as we went through the pre-test checklist.

"Any cardiac implants?"


"Clamps in your head? Rods, Valves, Stents?"


"Transmitting devices?"

I had to think about that one. Would my communicator to the Mother Ship count?

"No," I replied.

"Good, then we're ready to go," Priya said as she handed me the fabulously fashionable wardrobe I'd need to wear for my tests. It included soft blue "shoes" NOT designed by Jimmy Choo.

I was about to have my head examined, for the fourth time, as part of the Rotman Research Institute's ongoing exploration into memory and aging. In the pursuit of scientific knowledge, I've repeatedly submitted to EKGs, answered endless survey questions and been scanned by an fMRI. I am a 'control' for their studies.

It does give me pause to know that my somewhat twisty brain is being used as the "normal."

Today's tests were looking at episodic memory. Beforehand, I'd been given a chart to fill out with 'titles' for specific memories in several different times frames - up to two weeks ago, three to seven weeks ago, up to six months ago, more than 18 months ago. Stuff like, "Coffee with Bev at Sebastians" or "Jackie's Birthday Party in the park." Once in the MRI machine, I'd be asked to recall as much as I could about each event while my brain activity was being recorded. After each one, I'd be given non-memory as a comparison. In this case, I'd be asked to identify odd or even numbers as they flashed on the screen.

Many people ask me how come I keep volunteering for these tests. Usually, their reluctance to consider doing so themselves has to do with fear of getting in that MRI machine. Luckily, I have no issue with small spaces, and being cossetted and petted and made to lie down - during the afternoon! - seems more like a treat than a burden. A mini-spa day, so to speak.

But the real reason I volunteer is that I can. As a freelance writer, I have a flexible schedule. And as a science writer, I know how tricky it is for researchers to find study subjects who can give them several hours of time during the work day. Most healthy adults are pretty well busybusybusy from 9 to 5.

The other real reason is because I'm interested. I can't think of anything more fascinating than moi moi moi, and here is a chance to take a peek into my own brain while helping to further the cause of scientific investigation. What could be better than knowing that I've helped solve a knotty problem in memory formation theory, and through my participation, helped Alzheimer patients, MS patients, and brain injury patients (all focus groups of Rotman Institute research) retain better control over their memories and life?

Once, in the cool, dark MRI room, thoroughly pajamad and hairnetted, I laid myself down on the machine's bed. A "helmet-thingy" was placed over my face. Annette, the technician, fixed it in place with soft sponges. Ear plugs, then headphones were added next. A finger-pad control panel, on which I could enter my replies to prompt questions, was taped to my hips. A heart monitor was clamped to my left toe, and a breathing monitor wrapped snugly around my waist. A pillow was placed under my knees for maximum padded comfort. Then I was slid, Space Mountain-like, into the MRI donut.

All that was missing was strewn rose petals and cucumbers for my eyes.

The machine kicked into life with an otherworldly series of clicks, bangs, toots and wheezes. At first it sounded like the huffing of the Big Bad Wolf. Then, more like bees in a hive, tooting, quacking and piping.  Bone-shaking vibrations added to the cacophony. Now I understood the reason for the headphones and emergency beeper placed near my chest - no one could hear a bloody thing once that machine was going.

The actual test lasted about an hour. Four 11- minute series of autobiographical prompts were flashed on the screen, interspersed with the odd/even tests. For each autobiographical prompt, I had to indicate how intense my memories were. Were they so vivid I felt like I was reliving it (press down right pinky)? Totally vague (left pinky)? Or something in between? After the odd/even tests, I had to indicate how complete my focus was (left pinky) or whether memories from earlier tests seeped back in.

I discovered that memories involving food had an uncanny way of seeping into the odd/evens more than non-food memories, despite the fact that I'd had a perfectly adequate lunch only an hour earlier. It took me three goes at odd/even before I'd completely shaken the vision of a greasy-but-delish Fried Chicken meal I'd had at my sister’s bucolic birthday in the park six years ago. Ditto for last week's scrumptious baked potato, slathered in sour cream. When I'd written down "Dinner with Chantelle in Amherst, Nova Scotia" on my title sheet, I'd had no idea that my baked potato would end up being the most salient part of the evening.  Kind of embarassing, that.

When the fMRI was finished, they followed up with a "I have to do absolutely nothing" structural MRI. 15 uninterrupted nap minutes, as far as I was concerned.

Then time to get dressed, and one more test. This one was pretty funky.

A few years ago, out of the blue, a woman had contacted the Rotman Brain Health Centre saying, "I think I might have a problem..." Her friends and family had been telling her for years that she was unusual. She had no memory of anything that ever happened to her in the past. No memory of last night's movie. No memory of last week's birthday dinner. No memory of last year's big house purchase. Yet she functions perfectly - husband, job, kids.

Was something strange going on?

Indeed it was. For the last several years, a Rotman research team, under the direction of Dr, Brian Levine, has been trying to figure out what's the story with this woman's decidedly unusual cranium. My tests were part of this research. The fMRI I took was looking at episodic memory - what this mystery patient lacks. Pretty clear and straightforward.

But the next test was looking at something completely different: Spatial sense and visualization.

I was asked to close my eyes and visualize different shapes in my head while the researcher gave me instructions on how to manipulate them in my mind.

Like this:

Imagine the capital letter Y.
Place a horizontal line half way along the vertical line so it crosses it evenly.
Imagine a small circle at the base of the Y's stem.
Rotate the whole image 180 degrees.
What shape do you see? (Having trouble visualizing it? Take a moment and draw the shape on paper. What do you see now?!!! Ta dah!)

It wasn't clear to me how these shape-manipulation tests related to the mystery woman with no baked potato memories. But after I was finished with the questions, I got the skinny.

The case study lady has an extremely poor spatial sense. She also has poor visualization skills. She can't hold a picture of a shape, like a triangle, in her head for any length of time, let alone twist it to the left, right or upside down.

The researchers wanted to see if this ability, or lack thereof, had any correlation to the episodic recall I demonstrated in the fMRI. Only time – and lots more data -  will tell if spatial ability and visualization skills are related to memory formation.

I participated in one final study for the Rotman Institute yesterday. You can too! It's an online survey that takes only about 15 minutes to complete. You'll be given a $10 gift certificate to Amazon for participating, so it's a win win! To take the survey and help further the cause of scientific research, go to


For more information on the Rotman Institute and their fascinating research, go to:


And to read about my earlier Brain Study participation, check out the post on my own blog at


Here’s the funny thing: when I read this old memory-study post, I discovered I’d forgotten most of what had happened during it! I suppose that my , ahem, undeclared transmitter to the Mother Ship may have interfered after all.

1 comment:

Paula said...

What a fascinating story, Helaine! I love the idea that science fans can assist actual scientists in their studies. Bring on the brave guinea pig Helaine, willing to have her brain scanned for science. Welcome to the club of people who have proof that we do indeed HAVE a brain!