Watch High-Speed MRI Images of Someone Singing "If I Only Had a Brain"


Anyone who has had an MRI knows that when you get in the machine, you have to remain pretty still or risk messing up the scan, which captures about 10 frames per second. But to study how the approximately 100 muscles in the human head, neck, jaw, tongue, and lips work together to create speech and song, the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Illinois has developed new technology that allows MRIs to capture 100 frames per second. They demonstrated the technology with a video of someone singing The Wizard of Oz classic "If I Only Had a Brain" (above).

It all started when Aaron Johnson, an affiliate faculty member in the Bioimaging Science and Technology Group at the Beckman Institute and an assistant professor at Illinois (and a former professional singer) wanted to find out if training seniors at retirement communities to sing in groups would make for stronger larynxes—and, therefore, more powerful voices. “The neuromuscular system and larynx change and atrophy as we age, and this contributes to a lot of the deficits that we associate with the older voice, such as a weak, strained, or breathy voice,” Johnson said in a press release. “I’m interested in understanding how these changes occur, and if interventions, like vocal training, can reverse these effects. In order to do this, I need to look at how the muscles of the larynx move in real time.”

But capturing real-time articulation with a typical MRI machine wouldn't be possible. So Zhi-Pei Liang, an electrical and computer engineering professor, and his team at Beckman, as well as a group led by Brad Sutton, technical director of Beckman’s Biomedical Imaging Center BIC and associate professor in bioengineering, developed and refined the high-speed imaging technique, which they described in a recent issue of Magnetic Resonance in Medicine.

“The technique excels at high spatial and temporal resolution of speech—it’s both very detailed and very fast,” Sutton said. “Often you can have only one of these in MR imaging. We have designed a specialized acquisition method that gathers the necessary data for both space and time in two parts and then combines them to achieve high-quality, high-spatial resolution, and high-speed imaging.” To capture the audio, the team used a noise-cancelling fiber-optic microphone and synced it with the imaging later.

“We have a very dynamic community at the Beckman Institute and Illinois working on this, from engineers to linguists, and we’re able to measure things with MRI in ways we couldn’t have just a couple of years ago,” Sutton said. “But what makes it worthwhile is having people like Aaron who ask the scientific questions that drive our research forward.”