‘Pioneer Campfires’ Offer Stories of the Early Days of fMRI

Gary Boas

Imagine sitting by a campfire, listening to trailblazers and other witnesses to key moments in the history of MRI as they casually recount the untold stories behind seminal papers or inventions. Attendees of the International Society for Magnetic Resonance in Medicine (ISMRM) 2019 Annual Meeting had just such an opportunity last month when they assembled in Montreal. (Minus the campfire itself, of course. Fire codes and all that.)

The Pioneer Campfires – also known as Fireside Chats – offered attendees a chance to meet with the investigators behind any number of breakthroughs over the decades. “The intention was to enable aspiring inventors, scientists and clinicians to personally interact with the people who shaped the field of MR as we know it today, and hopefully be inspired by their stories,” says the MGH Martinos Center’s Marta Bianciardi, a member of the ISMRM Historical Archives Committee, which put on the series.

In developing the series, Bianciardi proposed to the committee a celebration of pioneers of functional MRI from three separate groups: Ken Kwong from the MGH Martinos Center, Kamil Ugurbil from the University of Minnesota, and Peter Bandettini from the University of Wisconsin (now at NIH). These researchers published, almost simultaneously in 1992, the first unambiguous dynamic images of brain activity in living humans during stimulation obtained with endogenous blood oxygen level-dependent (BOLD) fMRI.

The chats were a hit with attendees, who particularly enjoyed the informal setting and the opportunity to ask questions of the pioneers. At the fMRI campfire, for example, aspiring inventors, scientists and clinicians got to hear about the technical issues (determining the appropriate coil gradient and EPI sequence, for instance) and the surprises (not least, the fact that the BOLD signal was going up and not down) encountered while running the first fMRI experiments.

Also at the meeting, attendees could see a demonstration of the famous visual stimulation goggles used by Kwong and the MGH group, as well as other fMRI memorabilia, in a kind of pop-up early FMRI museum. The other memorabilia included the computer on which Jack Belliveau wrote his seminal 1991 Sciencepaper, original lab notebooks and more.

Read more about Kwong’s early work with functional MRI and other articles covering the history of the technique on the fMRI25 website.

In the photo above, from L to R: fMRI Pioneers Kamil Ugurbil, Peter Bandettini and Ken Kwong, and campfire moderator Marta Bianciardi