Brain scanner allows patients to move freely
A new generation of brain scanner, that can be worn like a helmet allowing patients to move naturally whilst being scanned, has been developed by researchers at the Sir Peter Mansfield Imaging Centre, University of Nottingham and the Wellcome Centre for Human Neuroimaging, UCL. It is part of a five-year Wellcome funded project which has the potential to revolutionise the world of human brain imaging.
In a Nature paper, the researchers demonstrate that they can measure brain activity while people make natural movements, including nodding, stretching, drinking tea and even playing ping pong. Not only can this new, light-weight, magnetoencephalography (MEG) system be worn, but it is also more sensitive than currently available systems.
The researchers hope this new scanner will improve research and treatment for patients who can’t use traditional fixed MEG scanners, such as young children with epilepsy or patients with neurodegenerative disorders like Parkinson’s disease.
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.”
Brain cells operate and communicate by producing electrical currents. These currents generate tiny magnetic fields that are detected outside the head. Researchers use MEG to map brain function by measuring these magnetic fields.
This allows for a millisecond-by-millisecond picture of which parts of the brain are engaged when we undertake different tasks, such as speaking or moving.
Current MEG scanners are large and weigh around half a ton. This is because the sensors used to measure the brain’s magnetic field need to be kept very cold (-269°C) which requires bulky cooling technology. With current scanners, the patient must remain very still whilst being scanned, as even a 5-mm movement can make the images unusable.
This means it is often difficult to scan people who find it hard to remain still such as young children, or patients with movement disorders. It also poses problems when one might need a patient to remain still for a long time in order to capture a rarely occurring event in the brain, such as an epileptic seizure.
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Image credit: University of Nottingham.