Brain scanner has bike helmet design to ease measurement

Brain scanner has bike helmet design to ease measurement
Scientists from the Sir Peter Mansfield Imaging Centre at the University of Nottingham in the U.K. have developed a wearable 'bike helmet' style brain scanner that allows natural movement during scanning. (University of Nottingham)

Scientists from the Sir Peter Mansfield Imaging Centre at the University of Nottingham in the U.K. have developed a wearable 'bike helmet' style brain scanner that allows natural movement during scanning. The novel helmet design enables researchers to measure brain activity in young children engaging in natural activities.

In a paper published in Nature Communications, the researchers, working in collaboration with researchers from the University of Oxford and UCL, demonstrate how they have enhanced their ground-breaking Magnetoencephalography (MEG) technology with the novel helmet design. As well as providing a new way to measure healthy brain function across the lifespan, it also opens up the opportunity to study a range of neurological and mental health conditions in children, including epilepsy and autism.

Brain cells operate and communicate by producing electrical currents, which in turn generate tiny magnetic fields that can be detected outside the head. The researchers use MEG to map brain function by measuring these magnetic fields. This allows for a real-time picture showing which parts of the brain are engaged when different tasks are undertaken.

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Ryan Hill, the Ph.D. researcher who led the study, said: "The foundations for human cognition are laid down in the first decades of life, but there have always been limited ways to study them due to restrictions in brain scanning technology. A particular problem has always been movement and the fact that the large traditional fixed scanners have always required patients to stay completely still. Not only does this fail give an accurate picture of the brain operating in a natural environment, but it also places severe restrictions on who can be scanned, with children representing the biggest challenge."

The Notthingham research team solved this problem by using new 'quantum' sensors which are very lightweight. This means that MEG technology, which traditionally requires a half-ton, 'one-size-fits-all' machine, is reduced to a 500 g helmet which can adapt to any head size. Because the new sensors can be placed very close to the head, the amount of signal that they can pick up is vastly increased compared to conventional equipment, which requires sensors to be kept at cryogenic temperatures, far from the head. The researchers also developed special electromagnetic coils which enable accurate control of background magnetic fields, allowing individuals to be scanned while they move freely.

Ryan added, "The initial prototype scanner was a 3-D printed helmet that was bespoke—in other words only one person could use it. It was very heavy and quite scary to look at. Here, we wanted to adapt it for use with children, which meant we had to design something much lighter and more comfortable but that still allowed good enough contact with the quantum sensors to pick up signals from the brain. We designed and built a new bike helmet style design, and using this we were able to successfully analyze brain activity of a 2 and 5-year-old whilst they were doing an everyday activity, in this case watching TV whilst their hands were being stroked by their mum. They were able to move around and act naturally while doing this. To show that the system is equally applicable to older children, we used it, with a larger helmet, to scan a teenager playing a computer game."

As well as looking at children's brain activity, the researchers used the scanner to examine brain activity in an adult learning a musical instrument. This scenario provides a way to examine brain activity while someone engages in a natural task. This was unfeasible with conventional MEG equipment, because the act of playing the instrument requires head and arm movement, which has previously not been possible.

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