green chile muffins and brains in a truck: weekend in albuquerque

I spent the better part of last week in Albuquerque for the Mind Research Network fMRI course. It’s a really well-organized 3-day course, and while it’s geared toward people without much background in fMRI, I found a lot of the lectures really helpful. It’s hard impossible to get everything right when you run an fMRI study; the magnet is very fickle and doesn’t like to do what you ask it to–and that assumes you’re asking it to do the right thing, which is also not so common. So I find I learn something interesting from almost every fMRI talk I attend, even when it’s stuff I thought I already knew.

Of course, since I know very little, there’s also almost always stuff that’s completely new to me. In this case, it was a series of lectures on independent components analysis (ICA) of fMRI data, focusing on Vince Calhoun‘s group’s implementation of ICA in the GIFT toolbox. It’s a beautifully implemented set of tools that offer a really powerful alternative to standard univariate analysis, and I’m pretty sure I’ll be using it regularly from now on. So the ICA lectures alone were worth the price of admission. (In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that my post-doc mentor, Tor Wager, is one of the organizers of the MRN course, and I wasn’t paying the $700 tab out of pocket. But I’m not getting any kickbacks to say nice things about the course, I promise.)

Between the lectures and the green chile corn muffins, I didn’t get to see much of Albuquerque (except from the air, where the urban sprawl makes the city seem much larger than its actual population of 800k people would suggest), so I’ll reserve judgment for another time. But the MRN itself is a pretty spectacular facility. Aside from a 3T Siemens Trio magnet, they also have a 1.5T mobile scanner built into a truck. It’s mostly used to scan inmates in the New Mexico prison system (you’ll probably be surprised to learn that they don’t let hardened criminals out of jail to participate in scientific experiments–so the scanner has to go to jail instead). We got a brief tour of the mobile scanner and it was pretty awesome. Which is to say, it beats the pants off my Honda.

There are also some parts of the course I don’t remember so well. Here’s a (blurry) summary of those parts, courtesy of Alex Shackman:

Scott, Tor, and me in Albuquerque
BlurryScott, BlurryTor, and BlurryTal: The Boulder branch of the lab, Albuquerque 2010 edition