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Half-tonne brain scanner condensed into 'bike helmet' device

Louis Gibbon

The bike helmet-style MEG scanner can scan children's brains (Credit: Professor Rebeccah Slater)
The bike helmet-style MEG scanner can scan children's brains (Credit: Professor Rebeccah Slater)

A brain scanner usually weighing almost half a tonne has been crammed into a device the size of a bike helmet thanks to recent engineering breakthroughs.

Conventional magnetoencephalography (MEG), a type of neuro-imaging for mapping brain activity, has previously relied on a ‘one size fits all’ machine but researchers from the University of Nottingham have developed a 0.5kg helmet which can be adapted to any head size.

The transition from a large and cumbersome device to a wearable system is the result of new quantum technology, said the team. Previous devices were so large because sensors had to be cryogenically cooled with liquid helium to -269ºC, meaning they had to be kept far from the head.

Newly available quantum sensors called optically pumped magnetometers don’t require such cooling, however, said lead MEG researcher Professor Matthew Brookes to Professional Engineering. Instead, they exploit the quantum mechanical properties of an ‘atomic vapour’ to measure the tiny magnetic fields generated by brain activity, offering a non-invasive ‘window’ on brain function. 

This technology not only enables a new way to measure healthy brain function across a lifetime, but crucially it opens up the opportunity to study a range of neurological conditions in children. PhD researcher Ryan Hill, who led the new study, said: “Epilepsy is perhaps the most obvious clinical application – it manifests as abnormalities in electrical brain function which are measured directly by our system.” Future applications could include the study of autism, schizophrenia, brain injury and dementia.

The heavy nature of previous technology also meant that patients had to stay completely still during scanning, meaning that it failed to give an accurate picture of the brain operating in a natural environment. The introduction of a special electromagnetic coil enabled accurate control of background magnetic fields, so individuals can be scanned while moving freely. This allowed the researchers to use the new scanner to examine brain activity in an adult learning a musical instrument. The arm and head movement would have made this impossible using conventional MEG equipment.

“The challenge now is to expand this further, realising the theoretical benefits such as high sensitivity and spatial resolution, and refining the system design and fabrication, taking it away from the laboratory and towards a commercial product," Professor Brookes told Professional Engineering.

“We see clear clinical applications, with the most obvious in epilepsy – both diagnosis and for surgical mapping.”

The team hopes the technology could scan patients within two to three years.

The work, which also involved researchers at the University of Oxford and University College London, was published in Nature Communications.

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Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

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