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Dartmouth's fMRI lab makes film debut in Wired to Win

Filmmaker Bayley Silleck, director of the IMAX films Cosmic Voyage and Lost Worlds: Life in the Balance, wanted to know what happens in the human brain to allow athletes like Lance Armstrong to push the limits of human endurance in the grueling Tour de France, so he turned to Dartmouth's Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) Data Center for a virtual look inside the heads of champion cyclists.

John Van Horn and Adam Rigall '05
John Van Horn (left) and Adam Rigall '05 with one of the brain images they created for the film Wired to Win: Surviving the Tour de France. The images illustrate what happens in the brain when human athletes push the limits of their endurance. (photo by Joseph Mehling '69)

The resulting IMAX film Wired to Win: Surviving the Tour de France, which premiers in Boston on Dec. 5, uses the Tour as a starting place to "explore the ability of the human brain to overcome adversity" and "accomplish the near-impossible," according to the movie's promotional materials. The filmmakers wanted a look at a three-dimensional model of what a brain undergoing the stresses of the Tour de France would look like, but had no way to get a brain scan of someone actually riding in the race.

Enter John Van Horn, Research Associate Professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences and one of the researchers who oversees the fMRI data center and Adam Riggall '05. Together, Van Horn and Riggall designed and rendered animated images of brain activity caused by physical and emotional stresses similar to those experienced by Tour riders. All told, the footage they created lasts about one minute, but that one minute is the result of months of work.

The project started in the summer of 2005 when the filmmakers contacted Van Horn about contracting his lab for the renderings. Serendipitously, Riggall had recently switched from a computer science major to psychological and brain sciences and was visiting the fMRI Data Center looking for a volunteer opportunity. Van Horn set him to the rendering task and their partnership took off.

The filmmakers asked them for renderings showing what parts of the brain are activated by use of memory, motor control and emotional functions. For this, Van Horn and Riggall relied on existing data sets from experiments designed to highlight these areas. Van Horn explained that they were "very fortunate to have data that reflected those processes," and he also credited Riggall, who came to the project with only a casual familiarity with the rendering software, with being "the force behind all this. He's got a background in computer science and psychology and that combination of skills and interest were well utilized."

The most difficult part of the process, Riggall and Van Horn agreed, was the hurry-up-and-wait atmosphere. Using technology with which a single rendering can take up to nine hours and a single modification can take half that, Van Horn and Riggall had to rush renderings to the filmmakers and a team of videographers in the Netherlands only to find themselves waiting for their next assignment. "A lot of time was spent in anticipation," said Riggall.

This was amplified by the fact that neither Riggall nor Van Horn knew much about the film as a whole beyond what they could glean from the Internet. In fact, it wasn't until the very end of the project that they received the script (voiced in the documentary by actor Alfred Molina) for the brief section in which their animations would be used. So far, all that Van Horn and Riggall have seen of the film is the portion they themselves created.

That will change shortly after the film's Boston debut. Although the Dec. 5 premier will be an invitation-only black tie affair, the filmmakers have arranged a second special screening for the people involved in the making of the film and Van Horn and Riggall are invited to that showing. Following these exclusive engagements, the film is scheduled to run at the Mugar Omni Theater at the Boston Museum of Science from Dec. 9, 2005 through April 30, 2006.


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Last Updated: 12/17/08