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The Power Of Play

Before I worked at Motilent, I was a teaching assistant at a special needs school. Last week, when LEGO MRI scanners started popping up on social media, it made me think of the children I used to work with. For these children, who often struggle with communication, medical appointments can be very scary. MRI is a great non-invasive test, but what if your patient is too frightened to lie on the bed, or even to go into a hospital?

Motilent focuses on digestive disease, but we are especially passionate about paediatrics and adolescent health. 5000 children with gut issues are seen annually at Great Ormond Street Hospital alone, and children as young as a few months old can be diagnosed with Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD). Paediatric IBD incidence is as high as 14.3–18.3 per 100,000 in some Western countries. From my own experience, I suspect that the difficulty some children face communicating leads to symptoms being missed, leading to underdiagnosis and/or mismanagement.

MRI of small intestine. An exceptionally well behaved subject and a great example of a large intestinal contraction.

MRI is commonly used in IBD patients to establish where the disease is and what it’s doing. With this information, clinical teams can make more informed treatment decisions, helping put patients on the right treatment, at the right time. When we get this right, children with IBD can often avoid surgery for many years. However, without high quality diagnostic imaging of gut inflammation, symptoms will likely get worse with age.

Put yourself in the shoes of a child going to hospital for an MRI scan: The child will likely not be 100% sure why they are there, apart from the fact that they feel really poorly. Adding to the fact that hospitals are loud, they’re busy, they can smell, and are an altogether unfamiliar environment. The MRI scanner itself is a huge off-white-coloured doughnut, and the child will be asked to lie on a bed which slides them through a small, claustrophobic tunnel. Mum and Dad often can’t stay in the room and the headphones given to block out the hum of the machine — itch horribly. All this while being asked to remain perfectly still. It can be a horribly distressing experience.

Stress and anxiety about something you don’t understand is a normal reaction that’s not limited to children. From my experience working with children, many were really scared of any medical procedure even things like having their height and weight taken in the nurse’s room. Some find verbalising their feelings difficult and are unable to ask the questions that would help them feel safer.

These factors significantly increase the likelihood that scans last longer or have to be repeated, leading to a distressed child and potentially impacting treatment decisions.

But small interventions, such as giving children an MRI scanner made of LEGO, can help reduce anxiety in children in two vital ways:

  • Playing with different characters — a doctor, a technician, and a child preparing to be scanned — gives children the space to roleplay the scan and think through their feelings, but in a playful and less scary way.
  • The ability to open the scanner, and see what it looks like inside, can help children understand how the procedure works, and stop them worrying about the process, reassuring them of their safety.

Because of this, I’m delighted that the LEGO Group has tasked employees worldwide with building these MRI sets and donating them to local hospitals. 

We know fundamentally that children learn through play, which provides emotional support for them to understand and process their feelings and experiences. The LEGO MRI scanner (and who knows what toys in the future!) will help all children (and adults) become more familiar with the unknown, in hospital environments and beyond.

Beth Fisher (Product Specialist)


About Motilent

Motilent is a medical imaging technology company that aims to make some of the latest and most exciting image analysis technologies available to the researchers who can use them to make the important scientific advances required to advance our understanding of gastrointestinal disease.

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