Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Light relief (to buy me time).... This year's IgNobel in Medicine

Anyone who has ever experienced an fMRI scan knows two things about the effects of the method on a subject: (1) it's soporific, and (2) like a long car journey, you don't need to pee until five minutes after you've started. So this year's IgNobel Prize in Medicine, awarded jointly to two groups, caught my attention. Their work shows how the need to urinate can affect performance on some simple mental tests - just the sort of tests that we use in our fMRI experiments.

Implications for fMRI?

An enjoyable summary of the winning researchers' work is available on this Scientific American blog. According to this summary (Yeah, I haven't got around to reading the papers themselves yet. I'm training to be a mainstream science journalist ;-), needing to pee could have your subjects performing better (yes, better) on delayed gratification tasks, but worse on cognitive tasks. I take these results at face value - I have to, I've not read the papers - but I do want to think a little more about the implications for fMRI studies. It's hard enough keeping people awake, let alone motivated to do a task. And as for providing *additional* motivation for a task... The mind boggles!

"I feel the need, the need to pee!"

So, short of rejecting subjects who rush to the toilet the moment they get out of the scanner, what else could we do to control for the effects? Perhaps we could insist that subjects must be able to sit in a waiting room for 20 minutes post-scan - no pee - and only then opt to retain their scan data.

What else might produce a similar effects in subjects? General discomfort? You have to wonder, given the "need-to-pee" effect, whether a subject's general state of (un)happiness in the scanner might well be interfering with his mental performance. If so, having pressure points in a subject's lower back or whatever could have him significantly altering his task ability.

Alternatively, perhaps the need to pee and general discomfort merely increases a subject's propensity to move. We all know that this is one of the Stages of Having to Pee:

So perhaps this amusing research has some important ramifications for fMRI studies after all. As with so many other state factors - caffeine use, stress, menstrual cycle, etc. - it could just be another in a long litany of issues that contribute to our relatively poor inter-subject variability. You know my feeling on the matter: if you can control for it, control it. And if you can't control for it but you can measure it, MEASURE IT! Would it really be the end of the world if you were to ask your subject to rate her "need to pee" as she exits the scanner? How amusing would it be to see your effect disappear having  regressed out the "need to pee" score?

PS I really will have a last post on EPI k-space along very soon! I promise!