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Canada’s first research MRI suite that is immersive, customizable, child-friendly and fully accessible at Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital.Handout

Canada’s first accessible and customizable MRI suite for children has opened in Toronto, designed to take the stress and fear out of the experience and allow kids to participate in vital brain research.

The new MRI is housed at Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital, which treats children and youth living with disabilities, injuries and illnesses. The diagnostic machine, which will be used exclusively for research purposes, is part of an $8-million multiroom suite that can be customized based on a child’s accessibility and sensory needs.

While there is much interest in research into children with autism and other developmental conditions, it is difficult to recruit those children into studies, said Evdokia Anagnostou, co-lead of the Bloorview Research Institute’s Autism Research Centre.

“It was very clear that there is a small number of kids who actually tolerate the traditional MRI environment – they’re basically in a very narrow space, it’s dark, it’s extremely loud, and you’re not supposed to move there for a prolonged period of time,” Dr. Anagnostou said.

The MRI suite was developed over the past two years with a stakeholder group that included scientists, clinicians, families and children. The aim was to have children not only tolerate the MRI but potentially enjoy the experience, Dr. Anagnostou said.

The suite puts many elements of the MRI experience into the hands of the child undergoing the scan. A projector in the room can display images on the walls and inside the MRI scanner itself – underwater scenes, outer space and the beach are among the options. The child can also choose to watch a movie through specialized goggles or wear earmuffs to block loud sounds. The door to the MRI room can be made opaque to allow for privacy or clear to allow a parent to watch through the glass. Children with light sensitivity can also control the lighting through a dimmer.

While the MRI will be used to research many areas of the body, the focus will be children and youth with autism, cerebral palsy and brain injuries.

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The new MRI is part of an $8-million multiroom suite that can be customized based on a child’s accessibility and sensory needs.Handout

The majority of children at the hospital have one or more brain-based conditions, said Julia Hanigsberg, the president and chief executive of Holland Bloorview. In Canada, 10 per cent to 17 per cent of all children have a neurodevelopmental disability, according to the Kids Brain Health Network.

Melissa Thorne, a former patient of the hospital who has spina bifida and hydrocephalus, received many MRI scans as a child. She said it was a difficult experience.

“They were really overwhelming for me and daunting, because you’re put into this machine and it’s very claustrophobic and very loud and you have to be still for so long,” Ms. Thorne said.

She remembers feeling a lack of control when it came to getting ready for a scan and being moved out of her wheelchair and into the machine.

Now 27, Ms. Thorne is a youth leader on the hospital’s MRI research committee and helped ensure the suite was designed to be fully accessible. It has adjustable and movable tables to allow children using wheelchairs and other assistive devices to change by themselves and then transfer directly to the MRI.

Fabiana Bacchini has a child with cerebral palsy and views the hospital as a “second home.” She said the new MRI will hopefully lead to advances that can improve outcomes for her child.

“I think that is such a huge bond for families to be excited and … engage more in research, because I think that’s the only way we can expand to provide a better quality of life for [kids with] disabilities and hopefully into adulthood,” she said.

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