New Brain Scanner 2 (Credit - Wellcome)
The imaging technique allows rapid changes in magnetic field to be measured to create maps of brain function © Wellcome

UK researchers have developed wearable imaging systems that are expected to transform the study of how human brains function.

Their potential applications range from investigating dementia to Parkinson’s disease and future models will be adapted for use in infants.

The scanners use a technique called magnetoencephalography (MEG) to measure the tiny changes in magnetic field generated by electrical currents produced when brain cells are activated. These rapid changes in magnetic field can be measured on the outside of the head at room temperature and used to create maps of brain function.

The sensors used in conventional MEG scanners require cryogenic cooling, making the machines large, bulky and intolerant of any head movement. Physicists and engineers at University College London and the University of Nottingham have developed new lightweight “quantum sensors”, which work at room temperature and can be mounted on 3D printed headgear — making wearable MEG brain scanners a reality.

Because the sensors can be placed much closer to the brain, both the quantity and quality of the signal they can pick up is also improved, according to recent studies published in Nature and NeuroImage.

Dr Matt Brookes, a team member in Nottingham, said: “Previous scanners needed to be cooled to minus 260C and required patients to lie completely still. The new sensors have been reduced to the size and weight of small Lego bricks, which can be incorporated into a bicycle helmet worn as patients move around their surroundings.”

The advent of wearable MEG brain imaging systems will enable researchers to investigate how the brain functions in a range of scenarios, for example how people interact with each other, make decisions and lay down memories. Importantly they can also be used to study human movement and how it may be compromised by conditions such as Parkinson’s disease.

Like the established technique of electroencephalography (EEG), MEG relies upon the electrical signals produced by the brain, but MEG can produce more localised maps of brain function which have been used to guide surgical decision-making. The “gold standard” technique of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) delivers high resolution images of brain structure and function but, even with recent innovations, still requires costly scanning facilities and subjects to remain still during scanning.

Wearable scanners have already been developed using optical techniques such as near infrared spectroscopy (NIRS), particularly for studies of premature babies, infants and toddlers. However, these examine blood flow and oxygen distribution rather than electrical activity.

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