For Dr. Tamara Vanderwal, movies are more than just a fun distraction for kids. She’s using movies as an innovative tool to see how the developing brain processes information. Her work could improve the way doctors diagnose and treat mental illness in children, leading to better outcomes for kids with these chronic, life-altering conditions.

Dr. Vanderwal recently joined BC Children’s Hospital as an investigator and child psychiatrist from the Yale Child Study Center where she was an associate research scientist.

She talks about the role art can play in science and the importance of finding new solutions for treating children with mental health concerns.

What are you working on right now?

I use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) technology to study how children’s brains work when they’re watching movies. Sometimes we use typical kids’ movies; but we also design and produce our own movies to help us study specific aspects of brain function. 

When a particular region of the brain is in use, more oxygen-rich blood flows to it. The fMRI lets us see these changes in blood flow so we can measure brain activity. The fMRI is a great research tool because it allows us to see inner workings of the brain without exposing children to radiation. At BC Children’s Hospital, we’re very fortunate to have an MRI Research Facility right on site.

Dr. Tamara Vanderwal
Dr. Tamara Vanderwal
A still from one of the movies used in Dr. Vanderwal's research
A still from one of the movies used in Dr. Vanderwal's research

In addition to helping kids stay still during scans – which can take up to an hour – movies help us see how the brain functions under complex, real world conditions. In daily life, our brains are usually doing more than one thing at a time, but when we study brain function, we’ll often just look at a single task like face processing or matching shapes. When a child is watching a movie, their brain is processing all kinds of different elements at once, just like it would do in everyday life.

Learning more about how children’s brains work and process information will help us understand the changes in brain function that contribute to mental health conditions, and may one day make it easier to accurately diagnose and treat these illnesses.

What kind of movies has your lab created for kids to watch during the scans?

The movies were created by professional artists specifically for this project. They include social stories that are told with simple geometric shapes, and a series of slowly evolving abstract shapes paired with piano music that was composed specifically to mask the loud noises made by the MRI machine.

I’m a very visual person and it was important to me that we treat this as a serious art project and take the time and effort to create movies that are both beautiful and tailored to the scientific needs of our research.

I really think that in this case, having beautiful art helps produce better science. Instead of having movies that are ugly and clunky or don’t work correctly because they were created by non-professionals, we have movies that look amazing and produce nice, cohesive responses from the children we study. This has also helped contribute to the popularity of the movies. One we made, called “Inscapes” is now being used by labs around the world.

Because our movies are thoughtfully created, they’re also more pleasant and engaging for the children getting scanned. When children are calm and still in the MRI, the experience is better for them and we get really beautiful data that we can use in our research.

How does your work as a clinician inform your research?

My clinical work is a huge motivation for my research. Every day, I see families searching for answers about their child’s mental health condition.

Often, we can’t tell them with certainty what’s causing their child’s symptoms or which treatment will be most effective, and that’s really frustrating for them. In other areas of medicine, we can often just order a test and see if a child has a particular condition or not. Right now in psychiatry, it’s not like that.

For example, let’s say you have a 12-year old boy who’s shown a massive change in behavior. He’s isolating himself and not hanging out with his friends any more. He’s quit his soccer team. He’s lost weight and he’s muttering to himself. His parents think his behavior is really odd, so they take him to the clinic.

He could be depressed or this could be the beginning of psychotic illness. The initial symptoms of these two conditions are sometimes very similar, but the treatments are different. Right now, we might not be able to say for sure what was causing this young man’s illness, so we’d just to make the best judgement call we could with the available information. However, if we’re wrong, the condition could worsen and the young man’s schooling, friendships and family life could be disrupted as we try to land on the right treatment.

What if we could scan the brains of children with particular mental health concerns to help make an accurate diagnosis? We’d be able to provide the right treatment quickly and give children the best chance at long-term recovery. We might even be able to scan children who are at high risk for a particular disorder, and start treating them before symptoms develop. That’s the ultimate goal of my research.

If there was one thing you could share with the general public about your research what would it be?

One huge problem we always have in child psychiatric research is getting enough “healthy control subjects” as we call them to run a meaningful study. These are kids who don’t have any mental health conditions, who are willing to come in and take part in research projects. To study children with mental illness, we need to have children who don’t have these conditions to act as a comparison group.

When people think about giving back to the community, they usually think about volunteering at a homeless shelter or donating to a food bank. Being part of research is also a great way to volunteer your time to help others. It’s also an opportunity for kids to see firsthand how science happens and learn something about how the brain works.

For more information about studies currently recruiting participants at BC Children’s Hospital, please visit our Participate in Research page.