Champaign-Urbana, Ill. (WCIA)

How to MRI your dragon

Illinois researchers developed the first bearded dragon brain atlas.

Interdisciplinary researchers at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology and the College of Veterinary Medicine 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 standardized protocol for performing MRI scans on America’s No. 1 companion 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,” said Brad Sutton, a professor of bioengineering and the technical director of the Biomedical Imaging Center at the Beckman Institute. “It is important to understand what a healthy bearded dragon’s brain looks like, and to understand the variation across different animals.”

Anesthesia is routinely used for animals during MRI scans. Because the scanner contains a strong magnet, specialized metal-free anesthetic 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 anesthesia,” said Krista Keller, an assistant professor of veterinary and clinical medicine and the service head of zoological medicine at the Veterinary Teaching Hospital. The researchers’ work appeared in Frontiers in Veterinary Science in May 2022. It identified a predictable and safe anesthetic 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 located in Beckman’s Biomedical Imaging Center to image seven bearded dragons safely and non-invasively.

The researchers compiled the scans into a single idealized 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.

“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 utilized in practices with access to either a 1.5 or 3 Tesla MRI,” said Kari Foss, an assistant professor of veterinary and clinical medicine.

The researchers identified nine anatomic structures in the bearded dragon brain.

Editor’s notes:

This article was updated in July 2022; it is adapted from the September 2021 article by Tejas Mahadevan Padmanabhan.

The publication titled “Establishing an MRI-based protocol and atlas of the bearded dragon (pogona vitticeps) brain” is accessible online at:

Supplementary material for this article is accessible online at:

Watch “How to MRI your dragon” on YouTube:

Disclosures: The authors declare that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.

All live animal use and experimental procedures were approved by the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee. All lizards recovered without complication. About Beckman: The Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology is an interdisciplinary research institute located on the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign campus. Founded in 1989 by philanthropist and inventor Arnold O. Beckman, the institute supports research across disciplines among University of Illinois faculty members to foster scientific advances that would not be possible elsewhere. Researchers at the Beckman Institute develop imaging tools, study the origins of intelligence, and harness molecules to create better drugs and materials; the institute is also home to the Illinois MRI Exhibit, which includes the first human MRI scanner invented by faculty alumnus Paul Lauterbur.