Brain research is a very important field of science. Our current equipment is actually quite accurate, but we can improve on that. Scientists from UCL and the University of Nottingham have developed a new generation of brain scanner, which can be worn as a helmet and allows people to walk around, no, stretch and even play ping pong. Furthermore – this new machine is even more sensitive than current devices.
Current brain scanners have a clear disadvantage – patients cannot move inside of them. Actually, stability of the patient’s head is crucial for the clarity of the picture. Scientists hope that this new light-weight, magnetoencephalography (MEG) system will help them research brains of children and people with movement disorders. This is extremely important and may help understand the development of the brain better as well as see progression of various diseases. This machine takes advantage of the principle how our brains work by producing electrical currents.
Our brain cells produce minute electric current, used to communicate. Where is electric current, there always is magnetic fields. They can be detected using this MEG system, which determines which parts of the brain are active. Current MEG technology is quite bulky and not mobile at all, because sensors require extremely low temperatures to operate and thus need a complex cooling system. Furthermore, patients have to be completely still, which is especially challenging for children and, for example, people with Parkinson’s. This new system is quite a bit smaller and takes advantage of new ‘quantum’ sensors that can be mounted in a 3D-printed prototype helmet. This device can work at room temperature and is very close to the skull, making the image clearer. Sensors cannot work in the environment of Earth’s magnetic fields, which is why patients are placed in rooms with special coils on the walls.
People can move around with this 3D-printed helmet, which gives an additional dimension to the study. Furthermore, they can relax more and movement, caused by their condition, is not rendering test useless. Dr Matt Brookes who leads the MEG work at the Sir Peter Mansfield Imaging Centre, University of Nottingham, where the prototype was built, said: “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”.
It will take some time until the prototype will become an actual machine, but many people are waiting for that day. Scientists are seeing future, where brain scans can be done during seizures or while patients are acting in normal life situations.