A new generation of brain scanner has been developed that allows patients to move around naturally whilst being scanned.
The device was developed by researchers at the Sir Peter Mansfield Imaging Centre, University of Nottingham and the Wellcome Centre for Human Neuroimaging, UCL. The device was developed as part of a five-year Wellcome funded project aiming to revolutionise the world of human brain imaging.
Current magnetoencephalography (MEG) systems require patients to stay very still whilst being scanned, with movements as small as five millimetres potentially making images unusable. This means it can be difficult to capture movements for patients such as young children or for those with movement disorders. More so, it is problematic for capturing rare occurrences in the brain, such as an epileptic seizure. MEG systems are used to map the brain’s function by measuring magnetic fields. The systems enable a millisecond-by-millisecond picture of which parts of the brain are engaged when we undertake different tasks. The new brain scanner uses quantum sensors that can be mounted in a 3D-printed prototype helmet. The sensors are very light and can work at room temperature and are placed directly onto the scalp surface. Interestingly, the quantum sensors only operate when the Earth’s magnetic field has been reduced by a factor of around 50,000. To solve this, the researchers developed electromagnetic coils which help reduce the Earth’s field around the scanner.
Research published in a Nature paper show that the new device was used to measure brain activity whilst people were making natural movements, including nodding, stretching, drinking tea and even playing ping pong. The lightweight and wearable system is also more sensitive than current available systems. The close proximity to the brain increases the amount of signal they pick up. The researchers hope the new scanner will improve treatment and research for patients who can’t use traditional fixed MEG scanners. Dr Matt Brookes leads the MEG work in the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Nottingham, where the prototype was built, he said: “This new technology raises exciting new opportunities for a new generation of functional brain imaging. Being able to scan individuals whilst they move around offers new possibilities, for example to measure brain function during real world tasks, or genuine social interactions. This has significant potential for impact on our understanding of not only healthy brain function but also on a range of neurological, neurodegenerative and mental health conditions.” Due to the success of the prototype, the researchers are now working towards new styles of helmet, to better suit babies and children. Professor Gareth Barnes, who leads the project at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Neuroimaging at UCL, said: “This has the potential to revolutionise the brain imaging field, and transform the scientific and clinical questions that can be addressed with human brain imaging. Our scanner can be worn on the head like a helmet, meaning people can undertake tasks whilst moving freely. Importantly, we will now be able to study brain function in many people who, up until now, have been extremely difficult to scan – including young children and patients with movement disorders. This will help us better understand healthy brain development in children, as well as the management of neurological and mental health disorders”. Professor Richard Bowtell, director of the Sir Peter Mansfield Imaging Centre in Nottingham added: “It’s great to see this collaboration between neuroscientists, engineers and physicists from two different universities producing a potential step-change in brain scanning technology. This was made possible by a Wellcome Collaborative Award which is an important funding stream that aims to promote the development of new ideas and speed the pace of discovery”