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For cyclists, MRI scans capture brains 'in motion'

by Brendon Nafziger, DOTmed News Associate Editor | May 26, 2011
What's going on in a professional cyclist's brain during a high-speed ride? Researchers in South Africa have rigged a stationary bicycle to an MRI machine to find out.

The contraption, designed by a visiting Brazilian doctoral student and his father to function with high-powered magnets, lets the athletes pedal furiously while the researchers scan their brains, according to materials released last week by the University of Capetown.

"This is the first time that we are measuring the brain during [this type of] exercise," said Eduardo Fontes, principal investigator of the Brain Regulation of Exercise Project at UCT, on a video produced by the university.
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Fontes, from the University of Campina in Sao Paolo, Brazil, built the device with his father, a mechanical engineer. It's made of aluminum, plastic, rubber and other non-ferromagnetic materials, Fontes said, so it can work in the MRI suite.

With the device, cyclists lie on the scanner bed, with their heads rigidly locked into place to prevent bobbing or other movement that would distort the image. The athletes then pedal on an MRI-compatible cycling device that transfers the torque to a real bicycle stationed outside the room, which is hooked up to an odometer. A screen then gives the cyclists feedback on how they're performing.

So far, only seven cyclists were scanned on the device, after first receiving training on a simulator the team built in the lab.

Dr. Fabien Basset, with the Memorial University of Newfoundland in Canada, who helped the team, said they had to screen potential cyclists for claustrophobia. Another challenge was dealing with all the moisture created by the sweaty athletes as they worked out, as it could interfere with the scans.

"I felt tired quicker," Iain Mills, a cyclist, said on the video about his experience. But he said, "I was trying to compete with the guy before me."

Fontes said the experiment was merely a "first step" in studying brain activity during intense exercise. Back in Brazil, he'll study his initial findings, and he expects to publish something later this year.

Watch the video here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WGGZMW8nsC4

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