My Brain Is Your Brain

It was my elder daughter who told me I could get my head examined.

So yesterday I spent an hour in an MRI machine having my brain scanned, even though I am perfectly healthy.

I was a subject in a research study whose purpose is to examine the relationship between HIV-associated neurocognitive disorders and aging, using innovative functional MRI (fMRI) techniques in a small sample of HIV-infected and HIV-uninfected people 50 and over.

I figured that if studying my “aging brain” can help improve treatment for folks with HIV, I can do that. Doug was also game, so I signed us both up.

This project is funded by the NIH (National Institutes of Health) and is a joint effort of George Washington University and Georgetown University Medical Center. (Not that there’s anything confusing about any of that. Can you believe we ended up at the right campus! “Aging brains” hah!)

We each had a one-hour intake appointment, in which we had to execute various pencil-and-paper tests, and computer tests. It was kind of fun, but then I like games. I thought how well my parents would do on the tests — now THEY would have aging brains!

I had to wait an hour for Doug’s appointment, so I strolled around the facility and peeked into the cadaver lab. (I’ve been in the building before when attending “Georgetown’s Mini-Medical School” which I blogged about here.)

Then it was time for the actual MRI. There’s something a bit fearsome about confronting an enormous machine which is going to examine your brain with magnets. I told myself: “Do not think about Magneto.”

Which is not something I usually have to tell myself.

I lay on my back on the scanner bed. A technician placed headphones on me and then clamped a grid over my face. She wedged everything tightly into place with pads. She gave me an “emergency” button to press, which lay on my belly. She put another button in each hand. Then I was slid backward, head-first, into the large whirring machine.

I suppose you could say it was like being shoved into a tomb.

OK, I’ll be less dramatic: The machine’s rounded contours reminded me of an old-time washing machine laid on its side. Meaning my head was being clamped into a “wash-and-spin” cycle.

A screen was projected over my eyes, which showed pictures and words. I would be given various tasks to perform, which I would do by pressing the buttons I held in each hand.

After some preliminary adjustments, I was shown images of faces, words, and houses. I didn’t have to do anything except watch them go by. The images cycled quickly, for about five minutes.

Now for the first task. I was shown an image of a face with a word superimposed over the face. I had to click the left button if the face was male, the right button if the face was female. The faces and words kept changing. I didn’t have time to think at all, just press.

Then the paradigm changed. Now I had to look at the word instead of the face, and click the left button if the word was animate and the right button if it was inanimate. The images kept changing, very rapidly.

Shift. Now look at the faces, not the words. Right, left. Shift. Now words. Shift. Inanimate? Left? Male? Right? What am I looking at again?

We did this for nine minutes. Which is a long time.

Then for a minute I listened to chimes clanging around my head, in octaves, with swishing noises. At this point it occurred to me that I was trapped inside a coffin-like machine having my head examined. I felt some claustrophobia rise up in me. I had the urge to sit up, which of course I could not do.

So I shut my eyes and pictured Jesus standing in a field. Do I sound like a real dork? I have an image of Jesus which is my “go-to” image for anxiety. I picture a wheat-field, and Jesus is just turning away from me and striding into some timber at the edge of the wheat. I am following. Every now and then Jesus glances back over his shoulder to see if I’m following. I keep my eyes on him while I feel the wheat swishing past my knees, and the lumpiness of the ground under my feet.

My breathing slowed down, and I could feel myself relax.

Then they started up the images of faces and words again, only this time we went a full twelve minutes. I was fine, although I started to feel quite mentally tired, and I was worried I wasn’t doing a very good job. (Translation: getting a high enough score! Can they measure ego as well as neuro-cognition?)

The next segment was passive. I just needed to lay there and not fall asleep. This I could do easily. For fun I switched to my image of the Spirit, which is of fluttering doves over the Jordan River. I was rather bummed that the test ended in about eight minutes, before I had time to switch to the Creator.

I was given the next task, again using the buttons. The researcher said, as if it was an afterthought: “Oh, and the machine will start to shake about halfway through, and that is entirely normal.”

This task was to look at an image of a face, followed by two faces side by side. I had to choose which face, left or right, most closely matched the first face. Again, the faces went by in a blink, much faster than I could actually think. I had to just press the button. Some faces were male, some female. Some seemed to morph in the second image. Maybe their expressions changed? Did their eyebrows draw down? Some of the faces seemed rather menacing.

I thought: This isn’t an HIV study at all! They are testing to see my response to aggression! This is about gender and aggression! This is about racial profiling! What is this really about? Help! Get me out of here!

But then I thought: Okay Jesus, let’s just trust the NIH and get this done.

And I kept right on focusing and doing the best I could do. And then the whole machine started shaking. It was like being in a pool on an inflatable raft, and having somebody try to shake you off.

The images quit, and the shaking continued, for a good five more minutes.

I decided to think of it as a massage. Also, I had time to think about the Creator after all. I must say it was nice to have company in there.

They slid me out. An hour had passed. I put my wedding ring back on and the researcher presented me with some American Express gift certificates worth $70. I asked if the study was REALLY about HIV and neuro-cognition, of it was about gender or race or something different. The researcher assured me that the study was precisely as stated. I believed her.

Then it was Doug’s turn. I read a book about the Arctic while I waited for his aging brain to be assessed.

We were the last people out of the office, and emerged into a dark, cold, rainy evening. Then we went out for supper and thanked our brains for treating us.

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I'm an essayist, memoirist, and Presbyterian pastor. My books are both spiritual memoirs -- "Chasing the Divine in the Holy Land" and "Ruined."

I welcome your comments.

2 thoughts on “My Brain Is Your Brain

  1. Thank you for taking part in this research. I hope it’s valuable and useful.
    I was pressing the panic button just reading your account of it! I find it hard to believe a statistically relevant number of test subjects could endure it.

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