Anita Montagna is a 2nd year PhD student in the Centre for the Developing Brain, Department of Perinatal Imaging and Health here at King’s College London. Her research focuses on long-term brain development of babies born prematurely, using a multidisciplinary perspective, which bridges neuroscience, neuropsychology and psychiatry. Her research is supported by the Medical Research Council.
While my entire department (Perinatal Imaging and Health) is trying to disentangle the mysteries of the early stages of life, my work takes me to a place a bit further downstream. Compared to many people I work with, my role is something like a Mary Poppins of science. I travel around London with a luggage full of toys and video games and I spend most of my day “playing” with children. I study the outcomes of prematurity in childhood and look for possible links between what happens in the premature brain and children’s abilities later on. With a “spoon full of sugar”, I ask kids to perform a series of demanding (and often not very fun) neurocognitive tasks and to exercise their attention for half an hour a day for two weeks. The study is part of a wider project that boasts of a unique database of longitudinal data and for the first time it moves from investigating problems to actually improving the life of these children. Here we offer them an intervention (in the form of a brain training video game) so we can then research into how the brain can change and adapt after prematurity.
It sounds great and epic but the territory is anything but easy.
Firstly, have you ever tried to talk about prematurity with schools and families? What you see is a lot of confusion. Around 50% of children born prematurely show academic difficulties and higher risk of attention and social problems during childhood. However prematurity is not a clearly recognised condition in schools plus families do not know how to consider prematurity in relation to their child’s development.
Secondly, we are asking children to be involved in an intensive research exercise: they are asked to come to the hospital twice, to have TWO –not one but two- Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scans and carry out brain training for two weeks. It sounds demanding and potentially quite scary! Thirdly, while many families are in battle with their children about how much time to sit in front of a screen, we are explicitly asking their children to play video games (a computerized attention training). Not everybody agrees that video games can be educational!
I am sure you can now vaguely guess what my nightmares are about…How to recruit? How to engage? How to get reliable data? The drop-out rates for this type of study is incredibly high; the child’s motivation is crucial and the family support is essential. Being aware of these issues (and probably inspired by my Mary Poppins side) I thought I had to find a way to involve the general public as an active part of the research process. So I thought I would try public engagement. But not public engagement in the style of a fun coffee break for neuroscientists or a way of ticking the “outreach activities” box on the next grant application. Here, engagement is much more important to me. It sounds something like “no engagement, no participants” or “no engagement, no scans”, in all its possible nuances. So, regardless of the views of some of my colleagues, I scheduled in my diary a weekly appointment for me to take part in outreach activities (just for the record, I also work on weekends plus these activities do not change the amount of hours I spend on my research so my week is pretty much work work work!).
So here some of the activities I am doing along with a bunch of brave colleagues. What better place than our Divisional blog to share them?
In terms of how to recruit children to my studies, I found a trick with schools. I offer workshops about neuroscience and scientific journalism to local schools and in return we have the chance to speak with the parents and their children. It really is so rewarding to see children dissecting jelly brains in my workshops. Many of them come out after the session saying “if you really do this job, can I volunteer for your study?”
For the MRI scans, I have a double strategy! When I go into the schools, I teach the children the principles of MRI and then I ask them to design a fMRI task. At one school, a group of 11-year-olds presented a task about processing unexpected events using images of footballer Wayne Rooney wearing a Barcelona football top! Once the students have built the task, we give them the chance to come and do their task during the research MRI scan and we give them a 3D printed version of their brain and colours to paint it. We will probably end up with an art exhibition of colourful brains!
For the training, it was an adventure. The video games we are using are relatively new and no data exists yet on how a non-premature child would perform. So I took the games to the fore and I ended up working at the Science Museum with a huge number of people. I won a place in the Live Science area, a great corner of the museum where you can do real live science for 15 days (Prof Sarah-Jane Blakemore and many other scientists took part before me!). Well, 700 people tested the video games and about 50 children took part in workshops about educational video games, one hundred children also designed posters explaining the pros and cons of using video games as educational/therapeutic tools and their suggestions. Together with this incredible amount of data, the days in the museum were something like a tour de force of public engagement! I was at the forefront and people could ask me anything they felt like (while I was trying to persuade them to take part in the study!). You cannot image how often I heard questions like ‘What do you do? Why do you do it? Why should I take part?’… A super training in science communication together with the unique chance to create the normative data for the games.
Having said that, I have to remind myself that this is just the beginning of the study and I wish the next time I write on this blog, it will be about promising results! I still have a long way to go so wish me ‘good luck’ and do contact me if you want to be involved (or have a child who might want to!)