Scientists unveil 3D-printed brain scanner you can wear playing ping-pong

22 Mar 2018

This brain scanner can be worn while people make natural movements, including nodding, stretching, drinking tea and even playing ping-pong. Image: Wellcome/Nature

For the first time, researchers have demonstrated an effective wearable brain scanner that has potential to revolutionise the world of human brain imaging.

Anyone who has gone for a brain scan is familiar with the somewhat lengthy process of needing to travel to a hospital to use bulky, expensive equipment.

But what if it were possible to shrink down the technology to the point that you could get the same treatment as well as the freedom to walk around at the same time?

A brain scanner for all

That is the breakthrough achieved by a team of UK researchers from the Sir Peter Mansfield Imaging Centre, the University of Nottingham and the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging at University College London (UCL).

In a paper published to Nature, the team demonstrated a device that is worn like a helmet and can measure brain activity while people make natural movements such as nodding, stretching, drinking tea and even playing ping-pong.

Not only can this new, lightweight, magnetoencephalography (MEG) system be worn, but it is also more sensitive than currently available systems.

While the technology would bring enormous benefits to all patients, the system’s real purpose is to provide another option for those who can’t use traditional fixed scanners, such as young children with epilepsy or patients with neurodegenerative disorders such as Parkinson’s disease.

Quantum breakthrough

Current MEG scanners weigh around half a tonne because the sensors used to measure brain activity need very bulky cooling technology to cool them down to -269C.

On top of this, the patient needs to be incredibly still during the entire scan – moving as little as 5mm – which is why it can be problematic for some.

To overcome this challenge, the brain scanner helmet has ‘quantum’ sensors installed that are both very light and work at room temperature. However, it required the development of special electromagnetic coils, which dampen the effects of Earth’s magnetic field on the device by a factor of 50,000.

Otherwise, the team explained, the device would be rendered useless. The coils have been placed on the side of the device to prevent claustrophobia.

‘Potential to revolutionise the brain-imaging field’

The prototype system has been designed to fit the head of anyone who needs to be scanned, and the team is developing a new design similar to a bicycle helmet that will be suitable for babies, children and adults.

Once completed, the researchers predict that this new type of scanner will provide a fourfold increase in sensitivity in adults, potentially increasing to twentyfold with infants.

“This has the potential to revolutionise the brain-imaging field, and transform the scientific and clinical questions that can be addressed with human brain imaging,” said Prof Gareth Barnes, who leads the project at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Neuroimaging at UCL.

“This will help us better understand healthy brain development in children, as well as the management of neurological and mental health disorders.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic