Imagine getting an active, energetic 4- to 6-year-old to separate from her mother and climb into a scary machine that encases her head and makes weird noises. Then imagine asking her to lie completely still, in near darkness, for 45 minutes or more while concentrating on a series of mental tasks.
Normally, children this young must be sedated for functional MRI studies, which give scientists a glimpse of the brain at work by measuring shifts in blood flow and oxygenation. But sedation isn't allowed for research purposes, and in this case, it could actually compromise the data. So how do you motivate young children and get them to cooperate, so the images aren't too fuzzy to be useful?
You transform the study into a game—a spaceship adventure in which they must help two lost aliens find their way back to their planet. Let them practice in a mock scanner that looks and sounds like the real thing, and have them photograph stuffed animals to see why it's important to stay still. Add a sticker chart for each completed part of the game, bathroom and snack breaks and the promise of a take-home CD with pictures of their brain, and you've got a study protocol that 95 percent of 4- to 6-year-olds can successfully complete.
Because most neuroscientists are unaccustomed to working with young children, Children's researchers Nora Raschle, PhD, and Nadine Gaab, PhD, of the Developmental Medicine Center, published their protocol—complete with video—in the Journal of Visualized Experiments in July. They're currently using it to study predictors of dyslexia in pre-readers.