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MRI space shuttle

MRI space shuttle addresses the challenge of acquiring MRI scans of young children and vulnerable populations, such as individuals with severe autism and intellectual disabilities, and aims to transform a medical environment into a more appealing, child-friendly space, thereby reducing anxiety and creating a more enjoyable experience.

At the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience at King's, academics and researchers study how the brain develops in typically developing children and what is different in the brains of children with various neurodevelopmental disorders, such as autism spectrum conditions. 

Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) is a non-invasive imaging technique to acquire pictures of the brain. Acquiring an MRI scan of young children and vulnerable populations poses some serious challenges: the machine is often perceived as frightening due to the loud noise and/or the narrow tunnel, and young children find it hard to lie still for the duration of the scan. When (clinical) brain scans are acquired in these populations, children are often sedated/given general anaesthesia, which is not always possible or desirable. Therefore, the project aimed to create a more relaxing and child-friendly environment by dressing up the MRI machine as a cartoon spaceship. 


The project was a shared collaboration between Oliver Smart from Folded Feather who is a puppeteer and stage set designer, the research team, the scan facility (including radiographers and MRI physicists), and families affected by autism. The proposed approach imported principles from puppet theatres to the medical environment: the King's researchers worked with a creative designer with experience in creating transportable stage sets and with children using puppets. This allowed the team to prepare the children for their brain scan using a mock scanner. 

The group met on two occasions to discuss the details and requirements of the MRI space-shuttle (e.g., no ferro-magnetic materials were allowed in the scan room) and visited the scan facilities. Folded Feather sent a plan of the model, created a scale model and showed the group fabrics. Upon review, further major adjustments in the design structure of the MRI space shuttle were made. The group agreed to the revised model and a prototype was built. The MRI spaceship can be set up and dismantled in about 15 minutes each and is fully MRI-compatible .


In addition to the originally planned MRI tent, Folded Feather also provided a set of soft toys, named 'space friends', that children can decorate the tent with or take into the scanner with them, as well as space blankets. The first pilot scan was run in July 2016 and, since then, 5 children were scanned, including some with ASD and Phelan Mc-Dermid Syndrome. Of those, four children successfully completed the scan with only one child not wanting to enter the scan room.

The team created a more relaxing and child-friendly environment by dressing up an MRI machine as a cartoon spaceship and made peadiatric imaging and imaging with vulnerable populations (i.e. children with neurodevelopmental disorders) a viable possible without the need for sedation. 

As a follow-up to this project, the team secured funds from the Sackler Foundation to create a  puppet movie “Pip and the Brain Explorers”. The movie aims to introduce children to having a brain scan in a child-friendly. It introduces Pip and his friends. Each child has something that he or she is good at or likes, and something that they are not so good at. For example, Tiago likes to run and to jump, but he doesn’t speak. The children want to understand why they are all different from one another and go and see a scientist.  The scientist explains to them that it’s all to do with their amazing brains. She invites the children to go on a voyage in the MRI machine; which is a very special machine that can take pictures of their brains inside their heads. She demonstrates to the children that the MRI machine makes loud noises and why they have to lie really still to get beautiful pictures of their brains.   

Project team

Dr Eva Loth, Academic lead and lecturer in the Department of Forensic and Neurodevelopmental Sciences, Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience.

The cultural partner was Folded Feather, led by Oliver Smart, Director and Designer/Maker.

The project also includes Post Doctoral Researchers Dr Jumana Ahmad, Dr Antonia San Jose Caceres and designer/maker Nerea Villares, Folded Feather.


MRI space shuttle is a collaboration between King's College London's Department of Forensic & Neurodevelopmental Sciences and creative designers Folded Feather, brokered and supported by the Cultural Institute at King’s College London.

Arts, Health and Wellbeing Programme
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