Amy McDowell: Improving MRI to help children with epilepsy

“It’s important for me that the projects that I take on are the sort of projects where I get a result and it gets used,” says Amy McDowell, a researcher in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) physics at the UCL Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health. Also a qualified clinical scientist, McDowell develops MRI techniques to solve specific clinical problems through a mix of technical and hands-on practical work. Technical tasks include devising the sequences of radiofrequency pulses and magnetic field gradients that generate the images, and processing and analysing the images. McDowell’s computational skills have been crucial in each activity. “Programming is the basis of everything these days,” she says. McDowell also recruits patients for studies and carries out the scans. “I like the variety and the fact that every day is a challenge where I need to find out a new piece of information.” McDowell’s most recent project focused on children with epilepsy undergoing surgery to remove the section of brain causing their seizures. Combined with electroencephalograms that measure the brain’s electrical activity, functional MRI (fMRI) can give surgeons more certainty about which tissue to remove, as compared to tests currently used in hospitals. The images light up areas of abnormal neuron behaviour, which is associated with the epilepsy; unlike a conventional MRI or CT scan, which simply shows anatomy. McDowell and her colleagues’ technique minimizes false positive results, and therefore the risk of a healthy part of the brain being removed. The researchers also used an on-the-fly technique to correct for movement of the children if they have seizures mid-scan. Accepted for publication, their findings will enable hospitals worldwide to implement the improved scans.