Macquarie’s Future Astronauts

Magnetoencephalography (MEG) measures the magnetic fields generated by the brain whenever information is processed. The brain’s magnetic fields are 100 million times smaller than the magnetic field of the earth – so it is like trying to measure the footsteps of an ant, at a rock concert. MEG allows researchers to see how the brain controls movement, reads words, hears sounds and understands emotions, and how disorders like motor neuron disease, dyslexia, amusia and anxiety upset these processes.

The world’s first child MEG system was installed at the KIT-Macquarie Brain Research Lab in July 2008. The child MEG system was relocated to the Australian Hearing Hub in 2013.

The child MEG system allows researchers to explore phenomenon such as language acquisition and auditory processing in children who are too young to participate in behavioural studies. This opens up a whole new world for researchers as information can now be gathered at the earlier stages of development. However, to record brain signals with MEG the child participating in the experiment needs to keep their head very still, which can be quite difficult for children!

To make the MEG experience as child-friendly as possible, researchers in the ARC Centre of Excellence in Cognition and its Disorders have created the idea of an MEG space adventure. The child MEG system is explained to children as like a space ship that will take them to a strange planet where they might get to go on a treasure hunt or watch some cartoons. Their mission is to listen to the instructions from ground control through the special earphones within the space ship. Before entering the space ship, they enter a newly constructed (in 2015) MEG simulator. The MEG simulator is designed as an open and friendly environment for children to ‘train’ to be a proper MEG astronaut. In the MEG simulator, a child’s head movements can be tracked and we can give feedback (e.g., by stopping a movie playing) if their head moves too much, to help children practice how to keep their heads still. The simulator will therefore improve the amount and quality of data that can be recorded from young children.