Understanding MRI (part 1)

Understanding MRI: A collaborative project to co-develop an animation with research participants

In 2020, members of the Physics, Imaging Support, qMAP-PD and PLORAS teams from across the Wellcome Centre for Human Neuroimaging (WCHN) came together to deliver a multi-disciplinary public engagement project. Together with volunteers who participate in the Centre’s research, they co-created an animation to explain a core aspect of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

The main aim of the animation is to explain MRI technology and alleviate the worries of members of the public who attend the Centre to have an MRI brain scan for research. The team took on the challenge of creating an animation which strikes a tricky balance between maintaining a high level of scientific accuracy while also ensuring the final product remains both accessible and engaging.

The final animation, What is functional MRI?, can be viewed here.


The Understanding MRI team 

The initial concept behind this project was developed by the Centre’s Physics Group  who wanted to explore better ways to connect with research volunteers and people visiting the centre around the basic principles of MR (magnetic resonance) physics  

MR physics underpins WCHN’s neuroscience research. However, sometimes a poor understanding of the technology can prompt uncertainty or anxiety and serve as a barrier to people participating in MRI studies.

The Physics Group reflected that they often receive lots of questions from research volunteers about MRI and how it works, and they wanted to find a meaningful way to answer these questions. They decided that creating a series of animations would be an effective technique to clearly explain complex ideas in a way that could be adapted to suit different topics, and shared widely.  

In order to develop the project, they collaborated with three teams from across the Centre who regularly interact with research volunteers:  

  • The PLORAS team who have collectively scanned over 1000 stroke survivors 
  • The qMAP-PD team who have had over 200 people with Parkinsons take part in their research 
  • The Imaging Support team who provides the technical radiographic expertise to carry out all of the MRI scans that are integral to these studies.  

With the support of the Centre’s Public Engagement Coordinator, Joanne Thomas, they formed the Understanding MRI team, and successfully gained a WCHN Digital Engagement Grant to develop the project. Their first task was to focus on co-creating an initial single animation. 

Co-creation of the animation

Central to the project’s success is the relevance and accessibility of the animations to the groups of people who most frequently visit the research centre. Therefore, the Understanding MRI team first surveyed nearly 200 participants from both the PLORAS and qMAP-PD research groups to discover which MRI-related questions they found most interesting and salient. The most popular question, What is functional MRI (fMRI)? became the focus for the first animation. 

The animation was created and brought to life through a collaborative process between the Understanding MRI core team, 5 PLORAS and qMAP-PD research participants, and an illustrator, Alice Haskell. The animation was co-created using an iterative process across three online focus group sessions, with input from the research participants at each stage of the animation’s development. The group particularly focused on shaping the script, narration and image style. Many of the focus group participants had aphasia – a condition affecting the ability to understand or formulate language after damage to specific brain regions. People with aphasia are traditionally underrepresented in research due to challenges surrounding communication, but many of these participants are now interested in contributing to further public engagement initiatives. The team was very mindful of making both these online sessions and the animation itself as accessible as possible to people with aphasia.

The resulting animation was completed in 2021 and won the Outstanding Public Engagement Project Award at the 2021 WCHN Public Engagement Awards Ceremony.  The final animation is being shared across the Centre’s and team websites, and with new and existing research volunteers, clinicians and other relevant contacts.   

The project was funded by the Centre’s Digital Engagement Grant in response to COVID-19. We would like to thank the volunteers who took part, and Alice Haskell for bringing our ideas to life.


You can read more about the Understanding MRI team's reflections on their experience of being involved in this project here