Treatments and Services

Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI)

What is fMRI?

We use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to take pictures of your child’s brain at work. It is similar to an MRI scan. But instead of just looking at the physical parts (structures) of your child’s brain, we look at the parts involved in specific activities. Most often, we use fMRI when treating children with epilepsy, brain tumors, tuberous sclerosis complex and cavernous malformations

Compared to other techniques, fMRI helps us get more detailed information about your child’s condition. It is safer, cheaper, more efficient and more comfortable for your child than other tests that give us similar information.

Using fMRI to map your child's brain

During an fMRI scan, we ask your child to do tasks related to movement or language. We may have your child tap their fingers to their thumb or say action words (verbs) that match words or pictures. Sometimes we ask children to do other things like wiggle their toes, do memory tasks, say words or think about words that match a picture. We look at where your child’s brain is active during specific tasks. This helps us to “map” their brain. The fMRI results also give information about which brain functions are affected by a brain disorder.

We use this information to help decide if surgery is a good option for your child’s condition. If fMRI does not give us all the information we need, we do other types of tests before choosing the best treatment. We avoid surgery if testing shows that critical parts of your child’s brain are too close to areas that need treatment. We tailor our approach to make each patient's life better, not just treat their disease.

Using fMRI to guide surgery

If testing shows that surgery is a safe option, fMRI helps us plan and carry out the surgery. The fMRI scans provide a roadmap. In some cases, we wake up a child during surgery and have them do the tasks again to be sure we do not remove critical brain tissue. Seattle Children’s is a leader in performing this advanced type of neurosurgery, known as an awake craniotomy.

Read how An Awake Brain Surgery at Seattle Children’s Stops Jasmine’s Seizures.

What's special about fMRI at Seattle Children's?

Seattle Children’s was one of the first hospitals in the country to use fMRI with children, starting more than 10 years ago. We have developed new ways to find and protect areas of the brain related to memory and music.

We use fMRI on children at any age. Read how we tailor tasks to the age and abilities of our patients, even very young children.

Among the nation’s top neurosciences programs

  • Seattle Children’s has the only comprehensive Epilepsy Program in the Pacific Northwest especially for children and teens. Our Level 4 accreditation from the National Association of Epilepsy Centers (NAEC) recognizes that we perform a broad range of complex surgeries and give our patients access to more research studies, clinical trials and advanced technologies to both diagnose and treat epilepsy.
  • We are the largest brain tumor center for children in the Pacific Northwest and among the nation’s busiest centers.

Research to advance care

Our doctors lead research to improve treatment and quality of life for children with conditions that affect their nervous system. Seattle Children’s works with other groups to set standards and find new ways to use fMRI that are best for children.

Our patients have the option to take part in research studies of promising new treatments. These are called clinical trials.

Learn more about Seattle Children’s neurosciences research and clinical trials.

Contact Us

If you have questions, contact the Neurosciences Center at 206-987-2016 or 844-935-3467 (toll free).

To make an appointment, ask your child’s primary care or specialty provider to refer you.

Providers, see how to refer a patient.