How to MRI your dragon: researchers develop first bearded dragon brain atlas

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MRI for bearded dragon
Photo: bengingell 123rf

They’re not too cuddly, but bearded dragons are an increasingly popular pet. And now, US researchers are ensuring that these scaly companion animals receive the same medical care as our dogs and cats.

Interdisciplinary researchers at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign performed MRI scans on bearded dragons to generate a first-of-its-kind brain atlas: a high-resolution map of regions in the creatures’ brains.

Currently, there is no standardised protocol for performing MRI scans on the reptile.

“It is challenging to get spatial resolution sufficient to see disease in the brain of a bearded dragon using a clinical MRI machine designed for humans,” Brad Sutton said. 

Photo: Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology.

Anaesthesia is routinely used for animals during MRI scans. Because the scanner contains a strong magnet, specialised metal-free anaesthetic monitoring equipment is also required.

“There are several instances when a bearded dragon would benefit from an MRI exam. However, a strong consideration prior to ordering this diagnostic would be the risks associated with anaesthesia,” Krista Keller said. 

The researchers’ work—published in Frontiers in Veterinary Science—identifies a predictable and safe anaesthetic protocol that can be used in future clinical cases. Data from this study also expands the clinical information available to researchers performing high-resolution MRI scans of bearded dragons in the future.

To compile their data, the team used a 3 Tesla MRI scanner to image seven bearded dragons safely and non-invasively. 

The researchers used an image averaging strategy to compile the scans into a single idealised model of a bearded dragon brain; the resulting atlas will be used as a standard reference material in the event that a bearded dragon may be diagnosed with or treated for a neurological disease. Anatomical atlases of reptiles including the tawny dragon, the tokay gecko, and the garter snake were also used for reference.

“Our goal for this study was to not only provide clinicians with an anatomic reference of the bearded dragon brain, but to also establish a safe and efficient MRI and sedation protocol that can be utilised in practices with access to either a 1.5 or 3 Tesla MRI,” Kari Fossn said.

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