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.

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.

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 or even think about singing. 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 doesn’t provide 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. It’s one of the ways we make our patients’ lives better, not just treat their disease.

Learn how doctors used fMRI to remove a tumor – and preserve Kira's voice.

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 that critical brain tissue is not removed. Seattle Children’s is a leader in performing this advanced type of neurosurgery, known as an awake craniotomy.

Who can benefit from fMRI?

Most often, we use fMRI when treating children with epilepsy, brain tumors and cavernous malformations.

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 as young as 4 years. Read how we tailor tasks to the age and abilities of our patients, even very young children.

Contact Us

Contact the Neurosciences Center at 206-987-2016 for an appointment, a second opinion or more information.

To make an appointment, you can call us directly or ask your child’s primary care provider to refer you. We encourage you to coordinate with your primary care provider when coming to Seattle Children's.

Providers, see how to refer a patient.