Frequently Asked Questions

Take a look at our list of frequently asked questions, if you still have questions or concerns - please reach out!

Why do we use MRI?

We use neurobiological and cognitive measures to discover the neurobiological profiles of readers of all ages and skill levels. We use magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to understand more about the function and the development of the brain with respect to reading ability. During your visit to our lab, your child will likely be having an MRI brain scan performed as part of the study. Participation in the MRI is optional for most of our studies, but we hope you will consider the importance of this type of research before completely opting out. There are links below for you to investigate the science behind MRI and how it works, the safety concerns, the type of data collected and why it’s important for our research, and the various procedures involved. Be assured, your child’s safety is of utmost importance to us.


Who can participate?

Because the MRI machine works using a magnetic field, you must complete a screener form for your child before the scheduled scan. The form includes medical questions about any past surgeries, traumas/injuries, dental work, etc. to be sure your child is safe to go near the equipment and be in the magnetic field. This information is kept confidential, as with all other study private information we collect about you or your child. Only research team members and imaging technicians who need to review the information for safety will have access. You may preview the screener here, but we ask that you wait to complete the form the day of your first visit so that we have the most current/accurate information available. If any surgeries or other events are reported that may have included possibility of metal being in your child’s body, we will need to follow up with other questions to make sure the metal is no longer a safety concern. Sometimes this may involve obtaining surgery notes or a letter from the surgeon (i.e. indicating removal of metal after implant), or viewing your child’s medical records of the event in question. This information is viewed by our pediatrician on staff as well as the technicians at the Imaging Institute. The approval steps necessary can sometimes take a while (contacting physicians, getting medical release forms completed, etc.) and we try our best to prevent last minute scrambles for this information. We will assist you in taking the necessary steps for all approvals well before your scheduled visit. On rare occasions, we may have to exclude your child from participation if there are safety concerns that cannot be resolved.


What will happen during your visit?

On the day of your first visit, after consent and MRI screener forms have been completed and reviewed by our research staff, we will introduce the MRI environment and scanning process to your child. For children 8 years old or younger, we have a very scripted and thorough preparation process that takes about 20 minutes. We take it one step at a time and stop immediately if we notice a child becoming anxious, hesitant, teary, etc. at any time during the practice/mock session.

First, we show your child a cartoon about the scanner (animals going on a “space journey” or talking about/demonstrating an MRI), a slide show about a real participant’s visit to our lab, and demonstrate what it’s like to be inside “the tube” by using a fold-up play tunnel as the MRI machine. On a computer, we play the noises that the scanner makes while pretending inside the play tunnel. A well-trained staff member (“scanner buddy”) is assigned to assist your child and will be with your child during all scanning procedures. We answer all questions you or your child may have and take our time making sure your child understands what he/she will be asked to do. If the child is agreeable after “pretending” in our lab, we walk parent and child to VUIIS to pretend further using a real-looking MRI machine that has the working parts removed (the mock scanner has no magnet). The parent will wait in a waiting area just outside the mock room. Again, we go through a script with your child that makes sure they understand they will need to lie as still as possible on the bed inside the tube while we take pictures of their brain. A lab member demonstrates first by going inside the scanner while the child pretends to be the assistant (allowed to push the buttons to make the bed go up and down, in and out of the tube, etc.). The child is then asked to lie down on the bed and practice inside the mock scanner. We have the child lie as still as possible while we run through shortened versions of all the tasks they will be asked to perform during the real scan. Younger children may only watch a movie, while slightly older children may be asked to perform tasks such as read sentences/short passages, match pictures to words, listen or watch for matching tone or symbol patterns, etc. We play the recorded scanner sounds during this practice session to try to mimic the real scanning environment as closely as we can. The mock scan takes about 30-40 minutes.

Assuming all parties agree to continue with participation in the real scan, you and your child will return to our lab on a different day (usually scheduled at least 24 hours between visits, but no more than a week or so) for the real scan. We intentionally schedule two separate visits to allow us time to cancel the real scan if we need to for any reason. Our reservations for scan time slots are expensive and must be canceled at least 24 hours in advance or the research project is charged for that time. Please help us to keep costs down by notifying us as early as possible if you need to change your scan time/date. We will schedule you to arrive about 15 minutes early to ensure we are not late starting the scan. Please try to arrive early so we have time to prep your child before starting (restroom, remove all metal, etc). Scans for younger children are usually no more than one hour, while scans for older children may go as long as 2 hours with a 10 minute break in the middle. The children are always with their buddies in the room and can be seen by technicians and another member of our staff through an observation window at all times. The child will have an “emergency button” on their lap during the scan if anything should suddenly happen (feeling ill, needs to use restroom, discomfort or pain) and will be instructed to push this if they need to stop the scan immediately. The scanner buddy watches for signs of discomfort and is there to assist your child during the scan, and the technicians and lab members outside the room speak to your child every 5-7 minutes via an intercom system to provide instruction for tasks and time remaining, get feedback on comfort level, and offer encouragement. Your child will receive a picture of their brain from the scan images we took during their session. Our staff will go over a few age-appropriate details with them as a brief educational/question-answer opportunity.


What is fMRI?

Vanderbilt’s 3T Research MRI

Functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, uses a large electromagnet to take pictures of activity in your brain. The machine looks like a large cylinder with a table inside for you to lie on. During the MRI you are asked to lie very still so that we get a clear picture. You will also be asked to play a computer task while you are lying in the MRI machine.
This is a completely non-invasive procedure. There will be no contrast, needles, or injections.


Is it safe?

Absolutely! Hundreds of MRI scans take place at Vanderbilt each week. When proper screening takes place, people wear ear protection, and follow the guidance of the scan techs, an MRI is no more dangerous than what you do on an average day. Although it’s safe, just like being around any large machine, it’s important to do your part to follow the rules to keep it that way.


How does it feel?

The MRI will not hurt. You will be asked to lie on a soft table and remain as still as possible. You will have a pillow under your head, and a blanket is available if you get cold. It doesn’t feel too different from laying on the floor or a table with cushions, save for the light vibration that can be felt from the MRI when it’s scanning.


Can I eat before my appointment?

Yes, you can eat before you come, but try not to drink too much. You may have to use the restroom in the middle of the scan!


What should I wear?

On the day of your scan, please wear comfortable clothes. The MRI uses a very large magnet, so be aware of how much metal you have on your clothes. Snaps and zippers on pants are fine, but please make sure that your shirts and sweaters are free of metal and in some cases, glitter. (Some kinds of glitter/reflective pieces of clothing may contain metal.) Please do not wear shirts or sweatshirts with hoods, and please do not wear any jewelry. Do not wear any metal barrettes in your hair, and be sure to remove earrings and any other body piercings if possible.


Tips and suggestions for scanning

To introduce the MRI to your child, first go to this slide show. Read this aloud to your child.

Then, to mimic the real scan environment, it would be ideal to play sounds for your child using headphones, preferably while lying alone on a bed, sofa, or floor. The child may watch a video/cartoon (with sound muted) while listening to the recording. Have your child practice lying very still/quiet (especially head) for 15 minutes (or as long as possible) while listening to the sounds. Restart sounds as needed throughout the block of time. Then, each time you practice increase the time 5 minutes to work gradually up to holding still and listening to sounds for 30 minutes.

It may also help your child if you make a game out of trying to “name” the sounds using familiar objects/machines (e.g. that noise sounds like a washing machine, that one sounds like the fire alarm at school, etc.) – ask, “what do you think that sounds like?”

In our experience, playing the sounds in this way, a couple times a day, for a couple days in a row before your scheduled visit, may greatly reduce anxiety during the real scan.

Here is a day of scan checklist.



Participants in our studies are compensated for each visit. In order to compensate you, we need you to complete a payment form which may ask for name, mailing address, phone number, email address, and signature. For studies earning less than $300, your compensation will be in the form of an e-gift card emailed to address provided, usually within 2-3 weeks after completion of all study visits. Participation in research is considered taxable income, therefore if participation in our studies results in earnings more than $600 per calendar year, you may be required to provide your SSN or W-9 and would receive check payments thereafter. This information is kept in a locked file by our lab program coordinator until your visit is complete and then transferred to our administration staff for processing and distribution. When payment is made by check, the checks may take up to 4-6 weeks to be mailed. You will be contacted by our lab if we are notified that any additional information is required for payment/distribution. If you haven’t received your check or e-gift card within 6 weeks from last day of participation, please contact our lab!