He's got brains on call

Dominick McIntyre likes to get inside his friends' heads

7 March 2005

McIntyre shows off one from the collection

It can be a good ice-breaker…

Dr. Dominick McIntyre is a physicist in the Department of Basic Medical Sciences of St. George’s Hospital Medical School in London. He is a member of the Cancer Research UK Biomedical Magnetic Resonance Research Group run by Professor John Griffiths. And he also happens to have a mobile phone crammed full of images of the actual brains of his healthy friends. recently caught up with McIntyre to find out why.

First things first. What’s the long-term goal of your research?

I work in a large team doing many different studies of diagnosis and treatment of cancer. One of the things we’re particularly interested in is using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanners to measure naturally occurring chemicals within brain tumours, and to use these to identify the exact type of cancer.

How would this be an improvement over existing ways of diagnosing cancers?

Normally, definite diagnosis of a brain tumour is done by taking a biopsy – drilling a hole in the patient’s skull to take a small sample of the tumour, which is identified by an expert pathologist. We’d like to be able to diagnose a tumour with a scan as accurately as with a biopsy, so patients could avoid an invasive procedure.

Hmmm. It does sound better than getting your head drilled – but does the scan hurt?

Not at all! You don’t feel anything, and it’s harmless – I’ve long ago lost count of the number of scans I’ve had myself. It is quite noisy, so you have to wear earplugs.

Why do you need to scan the brains of your friends and colleagues to develop your diagnostic procedure?

Two reasons. One is that when we develop new techniques, we test them on volunteers to make sure they work properly before we use them on patients. The other is that before we can identify disease, we need to measure the chemicals in the brains of completely healthy people, so that you can tell what is normal from what’s not.

Will any friend do, or are there certain things you’re looking for?

The brain changes as you grow up, then grow old, so ideally I look for people who are the same age range as the patients we see. Recently, I was helping a colleague recruit controls for a non-cancer study who had to be women in their mid-twenties to mid-thirties.

What was the most surprising thing you ever found during one of these normal scans?

One of my friends has a harmless condition called an arachnoid cyst – it’s a small bubble of fluid next to the brain. You do worry about finding something seriously wrong, but thankfully that hasn’t happened yet.

Does each brain scan have a recognizable signature, so you can tell your friends’ scans apart?

It’s surprising how different the shapes of heads and brains can be. I once thoughtlessly told a volunteer she had the smallest brain I’d ever seen in an adult, which she took surprisingly well.

And now we get to the crux of the matter. How long have you been carrying around these scans in your mobile phone?

Ever since I got a camera phone which would show a picture for whoever was calling.

And may we ask why?

I liked seeing my friends’ brains appear when they called!

Can you recommend this approach as a way of making your move at parties?

Er, no. It can be a good ice-breaker though – people who might find it quite off-putting if I say I’m in cancer research will be fascinated by pictures of brains.

Do you think you’re the only person in the entire world with brain scans in his phone?

Everyone’s doing it now. I’m moving on to livers!