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Toys, Parents Ease Brain Research of Children

A little more comfort and security—a stuffed animal, Dad's voice nearby—can go a long way to keeping young children still for brain-imaging research.

The inability to keep children, particularly young children, still has been a major hurdle for researchers interested in using magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, for child development studies.

MRI uses a giant electromagnet to create two- and three-dimensional images, and is especially useful in viewing soft tissues such as the brain. Functional MRI uses lower-resolution scans taken every few seconds to measure changes in blood oxygen that are associated with brain activity. Both tools are workhorses of the neuroscience field, but they require a patient to remain still in a long, dark metal tube for the duration of the test. That's a problem for many children; in fact, many doctors sedate youngsters before performing the scans, which limits their usefulness for task-related studies.

That's why a new study by researchers at the Hospital of the Ruhr-Universit├Ąt Bochum in Germany is so promising: It suggests that, with more supportive preparation, even young children can hold still.

Researchers examined 326 children ages 3 to 11, for a total of 2,119 scans from 2009 to 2010. Each child was prepared for the scan by visiting the machine and the scanner room. During the scans, parents were allowed to stay in the room and children could take a toy to cuddle in the scanner itself.

Dr. Christoph M. Heyer, the lead author of the study and associate professor in diagnostic radiology at the hospital, found that 97 percent of the scans were usable. Infants and toddlers under 2 still overwhelmingly required sedation, but 41 percent of 3-year-olds, 91 percent of 4-year-olds, and 98 percent of children 5 and older could hold still with preparation and support alone.

The findings add to a growing body of work to make neuroscience studies more applicable to younger children.

The study is available here in German, with an English abstract.

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