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Pediatric Functional MRI (fMRI)

At Children’s Health, our care teams may use functional MRI (fMRI) with children who have been diagnosed with epilepsy or other conditions that involve the brain. We also offer ways for patients to participate in research that uses fMRI to study brain activity and learn about brain disorders.

What is a Pediatric Functional MRI (fMRI)?

Functional MRI (fMRI) is a specialized form of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) that measures activity in the brain. It gives useful information about how the brain works and can be used to help diagnose and plan treatment for different conditions that affect the brain.

An fMRI uses the same technology as regular MRI scans, which allow doctors to see organs and tissues inside your body. An fMRI uses this technology specifically to take pictures of the brain. By monitoring blood flow, it can measure brain activity. An fMRI can create detailed images of which parts of the brain are working at different times and during different activities. For example, fMRI lets a care team see the parts of the brain that handle speech, thinking, movements and other tasks to better understand why a child might be having problems with them.

Doctors can use fMRI to help plan surgery and evaluate treatment for children with epilepsy, autism, brain tumors and other conditions. It’s also used in research to learn more about how different conditions affect the brain. For example, in children with autism, researchers are studying which parts of the brain are involved with movements that are hard to do or those that can’t be controlled.

What are the benefits of a Pediatric Functional MRI (fMRI)?

Functional MRI is noninvasive, safe and painless, and it doesn’t require the use of radiation. Although the child has to stay very still, it is a relatively easy procedure and creates clear images that give our doctors important information.

What are the side effects of a Pediatric Functional MRI (fMRI)?

There are no side effects of fMRI, although some children may find the noises made by the MRI machine to be loud.

What are the risks of a Pediatric Functional MRI (fMRI)?

This procedure is safe and has very few risks. Some metals can’t be brought inside the equipment. If your child has metal on or in their body from a device or a medication patch, you can discuss any precautions or necessary steps to take with your technologist.

What to expect with a Pediatric Functional MRI (fMRI)

Our care team will help families understand each step of the procedure and answer any questions you may have.

What to expect before fMRI

Before an fMRI, we will ask your child to change into a hospital gown.

If they have a medical implant, such as a stent, you will need to provide its exact name and manufacturer before your child can have an fMRI. If they wear a medication patch, they will need to remove it. If they use an insulin pump or continuous glucose monitor, they will need to remove it as well. You could schedule the appointment near the date when you change the device, and be sure that you have an extra one with you to put on after the scan or procedure.

If your child will be uncomfortable being in the narrow scanner or lying still for an hour, you should talk with the nurse or doctor about this concern.

Your child should be able to take any medications as usual beforehand.

What to expect during fMRI

You will be asked to arrive one hour before your exam. Our Child Life specialists will help prepare your child for the fMRI. This will include pictures, videos and simple explanations of the tasks – speaking or moving certain parts of their body – that we will ask your child to perform during the scan.

Your child will lie down on a narrow table (about the size of a playground tunnel) that slides into the MRI machine. They will lie on their back with their arms at their side. They will need to wear a head coil, which looks like a football helmet and lie still for about 60 minutes. The care team will be able to communicate with them during that time. You will be able to join them in the fMRI room.

The scanner makes a loud tapping noise, and your child will be given earphones to reduce the noises. The headphones also allow us to talk with them.

What to expect after fMRI

After the fMRI, your child will be able to return to all their usual activities.

How do I prepare my child for a Pediatric Functional MRI (fMRI)?

It can be helpful to explain to your child that they will need to lie still in a small space. It can also be helpful to explain that the scanner can make loud noises, but that’s a normal part of the procedure.

What questions should I ask my provider about Pediatric Functional MRI (fMRI)?

  • What do you learn from an fMRI that’s different from what you learn from a regular MRI?
  • Can I stay with my child during the fMRI?
  • How soon will I be able to see my child after the fMRI?

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Will my children’s whole body be in the scanner?

    Only the top part of your child’s body will be in the scanner.

  • Will my child need to be injected with a dye or other substance?

    No. There are no dyes or other substances involved with an fMRI.

  • If my child is afraid, what should they do?

    Your child will be able to speak with someone during the entire test, and they can ask to be removed from the scanner if they are too afraid.