I recently came across the video for a track called ‘Better Man Than He’ by British singer-songwriter Sivu. Rather than regular CGI-jiggery pokery, the video, made in collaboration with St Bartholemew’s Hospital in London and the charity CLEFT, uses cutting-edge computer power of a different kind, ‘real-time’ Magnetic Resonance Imagining (rt-MRI), to produce a unique and breath-taking peek into an artist’s head as he sings his song.
This video is really cool, not just because it looks amazing, but because of the advances in the imaging technology that made it possible. Normal MRI images usually take seconds, if not minutes, to capture detailed, static images of the body part or brain.
If lot of these images are taken sequentially (a 'slice'), they can be stitched together to create a full 3D model.
Because the images take so long to capture, movement is a really big issue in an MRI scanner. The odd twitch inside the scanner is ok, but any significant or repeated movement means getting blurry images. As someone who worked with MRI, and spent a lot of my time trying to scan children, I know the importance and difficulty of getting people to sit still whilst lying inside a giant magnet. The best trick I found that worked every time (but only if they didn’t have to do a task whilst been scanned), was to get them to watch the Simpsons. Because the technique requires the participant to be still as possible, conventional MRI also doesn’t really work with moving tissue, like joints and the heart, or as we’ll come to, singing mouths.
Whilst a rudimentary version of ‘real-time’ scanning was around as early as 1984, it’s only recently that developments in computing power have made it possible to take MRIs quickly enough, and do the hugely complicated analysis afterwards, to be able to create images of moving body parts in an MRI scanner.
In 2010, researchers at the Max Planck Institute in Göttingen demonstrated that it was possible to record MRI images in 0.2 seconds. This paved the way for two significant improvements to MRI scanning. First, scans be done much quicker, minimising the discomfort of the participant (and the stress on the part of the scanner operator trying to keep them still). The second is that MRI images could be captured quickly enough to be able to visualise moving tissue. For this to happen, the researchers developed analysis software that was able to stitch together lot of frequently taken low-resolution images, instead of using regular MRI images which are much more detailed but take a lot more time. Being able to image organs and joints inside the body, without the use of any kind of radioactive imaging (like x-rays) or radioactive tracer materials, is going to have a massive impact medical research and treatment.
The image below is a real-time MRI showing the movement of the heart muscle over 0.264 seconds during a single heartbeat, with each image captured at 33 millisecond intervals.
Real-time MRI of a beating heart. Credit: Frahm/MPI for Biophysical Chemistry.
Below are images reconstructed as videos for both a beating heart and live speech production. Whilst these recordings are made in ‘real-time’, they weren’t 'live'; you couldn’t use the see the beating heart on the screen at the very same time as it was being recorded. A one-minute recording of a heartbeat produces around 2-3000 images, the equivalent of a whopping two gigabytes of data, which, back then, took 30 minutes to process into a video.
Fast forward a couple of years and the analytical tools and processing power are now good enough to see the MRI recording of moving tissue as it happens.
Researchers at the University of Southern California have been using rt-MRI to look at the complexities of speech production, hitting the headlines recently for their research on beat-boxing and opera singers. There’s a bit of jargon to get through in the intro to the video (‘short TR spiral echo gradient pulse sequence’ blah) but the images and the explanations are fascinating (warning: the audio quality of the opera singing is poor, which is understandable since it was recorded inside a giant magnet; turn the volume down if you don’t want your split when the singer hits the high notes).
The Sivu video is, I think, the first case of rt-MRI being used purely for artistic purposes and the results, after a bit of direction and editing, is stunning piece of work, even for those who aren’t amazed by the science behind it.
The folks at St. Barts have put together a really good step-by-step guide to how they made Sivu’s video, which is really worth reading and watching through. You can see the ‘live capture’ of the MRI around the 20 second mark in the video below.
Being able to record moving tissue and being able to see the recording on the screen in real time is an absolutely incredible feat. Given that developments are happening so quickly, there’s no telling what kinds of images we’ll be able to capture in two years’ time, never mind 20. The only thing for certain is that exciting times lie ahead for science, and it seems, science-inspired art too.
Sivu, the video's director, Adam Powell, and the scientists and technicians at St Bart's deserve a lot of credit for creating an amazing video and for doing a fine bit of science communication too.