This New Wearable Scans Your Brain

March 30, 2018 - 4 minutes read

MedTech app developerWhen physicist Elena Boto tried out the University of Nottingham’s brain scanning wearable, she had to wear a conventional scanner alongside the new MedTech wearable. The research team had her perform several tasks, like bending and pointing her finder, drinking water, and bouncing a ball from a paddle.

The conventional scanner was fixed in place, while the new wearable bobbed around her head as her body moved. Amazingly, the researchers reported the new wearable recorded almost an identical data output to the conventional scanner.

Mapping the Brain in Motion

The lead researcher of the wearable, physicist Matt Brookes, says, “In terms of mapping brain activity, this represents a step change. Neuroscientists will be able to envisage a whole new world of experiments where we try to work out what the brain is doing but whilst a person is behaving naturally and moving around.”

Mapping neurons while they’re firing and the subject is moving has been incredibly difficult for all research teams. Traditionally, patients have to remain stable so a machine can detect the weak magnetic fields that neurons release upon firing.

The same method, called magnetoencephalography (MEG), is not safe for young children to sit through—it comes equipped with superconductors and loops of ultrasensitive magnetic sensors that are kept cool with liquid helium. The new wearable isn’t a giant machine; it’s a mask-like apparatus for your head.

Accounting for Every Atom

“This is remarkable,” says Matti Hamalainen, MEG researcher of Boston-based Massachusetts General Hospital. “MEG is moving forward conceptually into a new era.”

Physicist and researcher on the team, Richard Bowtell, worked to create workarounds for the traditional, non-flexible MEG approach. The team invented 13 glass cubes of special electromagnetic coils, mounted on boards around the scanner, which reduced the Earth’s magnetic field effects by a factor of 50,000.

When a neuron fires, it knocks atoms out of formation; the sensors measure changes in the light using a laser. This helps create a map of brain activity.

Improvement Towards More Movement

These improvements make remarkable strides in making MEG more viable, but there are still a few obstacles holding it back. Setting up the machine to allow users to walk and run around is definitely a priority. Another large optimization is needed for the overall cost of the wearable.

Since the 13 glass cubes only target one part of the brain at a time, more glass cubes are needed to create a picture of the whole brain’s activity. The cost would balloon to almost $1 million for now, which makes it unrealistic to replicate for use around the world. Bowtell expects this price to decrease as technology surrounding the device improves.

For doctors working with children that have neural conditions, like neuroradiologist Timothy Roberts, the masks are worth it for the children. “Asking a child with autism to sit still is not very easy. Asking a toddler to sit still is impossible. … I think this work is transformative,” says Dr. Roberts.

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