Scuba sParty helps children stay calm and entertained during mri research scanning

Michigan State University and the University of Michigan both have a history of firsts, so it is no surprise they are collaborating on yet another first in the medical research world. Funded by a National Institute of Health (NIH) Grant entitled “A Longitudinal Study of Neural Network Development in Children Who Stutter,” Soo-Eun Chang (UM) and David Zhu (MSU-CHM) are working together to understand brain development in children who stutter. The cause of stuttering is currently unknown but this research team is determined to discover why and create a solution.

The Speech Neurophysiology Lab (SNL) director, Soo-Eun Chang, Speech-Language Pathologist and Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Michigan, has been conducting research on children who do and do not stutter (3-12 years of age) since 2010. Collaborating at Michigan State University is David Zhu, Associate Professor of Radiology, an MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) physicist and neuroscientist. As site lead at MSU, Dr. Zhu works with Dr. Chang, SNL lab members, and MSU Radiology staff on administering the MSU portion of the grant, providing necessary administrative and MRI physics support, including image quality assurance processes.

More than 120 children have participated in the study, with over 300 successful MRI scans collected at the MSU Department of Radiology. SNL plans to double this number with a new longitudinal cohort of children coming in for research participation in the next several years. Because stuttering first occurs and develops during early childhood, researchers have been interested in how brain development trajectories differ between children who do and do not stutter. Further, they hope to learn how children that grow out of stuttering differ from those who continue to stutter. MRI is the gold standard neuroimaging method that allows researchers to examine the intricate details of brain structure and function across the entire brain.

However, the intimidation of the loud MRI scanner has proven to be quite a challenge: it makes very loud noises and requires one to stay still for long periods of time inside a narrow and dark tunnel (the “bore”) of the MRI machine. These factors can intimidate some adults, let alone children! To prepare the children for the actual scanning, the SNL team has created a mock MRI training procedure, during which the children can experience most aspects of the actual testing, including the MRI sounds, in order to better understand what to expect.

There is a published method of desensitization with a higher success rate when used with children, resulting in better quality brain images with fewer motion artefacts. To implement a similar procedure here, MSU Radiology created a colorful screen that hides the intimidating parts of the MRI machine and the overall clinical or hospital appearance. It craftily covers the machine and takes the child on an undersea adventure with Sparty and Whally the Whale as they captain a submarine through the appointment. The skylights in the room are covered with a deep, wavy blue to continue the illusion that the scanner is a submarine underwater. (pictured below) It was designed by graphics student Maria Smith with oversight by Graphic Artist Careen Loos, ABA, in the Digital Media Lab at the MSU Department of Radiology. A companion video, created by Chelsea Johnson, SNL project manager at MSU, features Whally the Whale and a submarine adventure animated story. Working together, they incorporated Scuba Sparty because of his relatable characteristics and to give a fun Spartan experience for children. The lightweight screen is removable for efficient transition between scanning children and adults. Both research and design team worked with clinical MRI technologists, Scarlett Doyle, Stan Fedewa, and Colleen Hammond, who provided guidance to make sure the screen would be safe for use in the MRI environment.

One of the main questions that Chang, Zhu, and the Speech Neurophysiology Lab hopes to answer is “Why do some children recover naturally from stuttering while others don’t?” Collecting behavioral and neuroimaging data from young children will be crucial in reaching this long-term goal.

While the research is very important, the icing on the cake is how much fun the participating children will have. The daunting task of MRI scanning, gathering and analyzing data, and keeping the children calm and collected would be infinitely more difficult without the illusion of an undersea adventure. When the subject of research is happy, the procedure and overall results tend to be much better.

To stay up to date with the latest news and findings, please follow the SNL team on Facebook by visiting their Speech Neurophysiology Page @msudevelopmentalstutteringproject. The lab’s website is

Who will get the inside story? Radiology Spartans Will.