My Brain’s Contribution to Science


Last weekend I was on the campus of U.C. Berkeley in order for the researchers there to obtain an MRI of my brain. It was actually the second brain MRI they had done. The first one was a baseline image they took of it about five years ago.

The experience is an interesting one, especially for people like me with no claustrophobia issues, and who are perfectly happy lying around thinking of nothing in particular for about an hour. It started off with me chatting with a nice student, who is majoring in economics and political studies, whose job it was to get me to fill out a questionnaire about various potential sources of metal in my body. This is important because the “M” in “MRI” stands for “Magnetic,” and any metal in the room will be attracted to the strong magnetic field created by the machine.

I then changed into a set of scrubs, and the MRI technician took over, asking me another series of questions also designed to determine whether I had any stray metal in my body. He then used a wand to try to find any indication of metal, saying, “Hold out your arms and pretend you’re at the airport.” I briefly wished I’d said something like, “Ok, but I’d better not miss my plane,” but maybe he’s sick of that sort of joke by now.

I then put disposable foam earplugs in my ears (you know, the kind they hand out at loud concerts,) then a pair of headphones, a heart/oxygen monitor on my index finger, and a belt with a little thing on it to monitor my breathing.

Then I lay down on my back, with a big foam pad under my knees and a little one under my head, after which the technician attached a big plastic cage-like thing over my head, stuffed a couple of pieces of foam inside so my head wouldn’t move, and gave me a bulb to hold in my hand that I could squeeze if I needed him, for any reason, to come running and let me out.

He then tightened a couple of plastic screws so one was touching either side of my forehead. This last thing, he said, was a low tech way to give me some biofeedback in case I moved my head at all, since keeping my head still through the entire process was so important. After that, he placed a blanket over me – thank goodness, since it was cold in there – and the table-like piece of machinery I was lying on slid back into the machine.

Then it was just a matter of lying back and thinking of nothing in particular while the MRI machine did its thing. He checked in with me, via the headphones, a couple of times to see how I was doing, but other than that, I was left to my own thoughts while the machine made all sorts of interesting noises and, for a while, even vibrated some. One of my first thoughts, listening to those noises, was that someone really ought to make one of those mash-up music videos using the sounds from the MRI machine. They are varied and, at times, do sound like music.

Toward the end, he added another monitor of some kind to my other index finger, and I had to hold my breath a few times, as instructed, while the MRI machine made some more measurements. The technician said this was to see how my brain reacts when it’s deprived of oxygen. The blood vessels, he said, should open up, for instance.

What was the point of all this? It was all for medical science. For the past 30 years I’ve been part of a long term study that is looking into what causes heart disease, and sometimes they ask whether we’re willing to participate in other studies, as well. My understanding is that this study is looking at how changes in cognitive functioning are reflected in the brain.

Five years ago, I was given a cognitive test, and, since I passed it, I was treated to a similar MRI experience. A couple of months ago I was given a second cognitive test, and last weekend I got this second brain MRI. The plan, as I understand it, is to give us a cognitive test and have us take another MRI every five years or so, to try to find correlations between changes in our cognitive functioning and our brain images. The best case scenario, I suppose, would be for them to identify certain markers in brain scans that will alert doctors to those patients most likely to have cognitive problems in the future.

I’m hoping there’s a mitzvah in all of this, although I’m not sure which one it would be. Not that it really matters. I’m glad to be doing my part for medical science, even if I’m not commanded to do so.

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