UK scientists have developed a new form of brain scanning sensor in what they claim is a world-first that could prove critical in the detection and diagnosis of neurodegenerative conditions including Alzheimer’s, Multiple sclerosis (MS) and Motor neurone disease.
Quantum physicists at the University of Sussex applied the sensitive sensors to study participants’ scalps, near to the brain’s visual cortex, to pick up faint magnetic fields that indicate brain activity.
Conventional brain scanners, known as MEG (Magnetoencephalography) scanners, require patients to sit still with the dome-like apparatus positioned over their heads and rely on expensive liquid helium to supercool magnetic detection coils to -269 degrees celsius in order to operate.
The new system instead relies upon ‘quantum‘ sensors, which harnesses the fundamental properties of atoms to detect magnetic fields. Significantly less expensive than older cumbersome machines, the sensors are light enough for patients to move around while wearing them – an added benefit for impatient children and adults with conditions such as claustrophobia.
Instead of cryogenic cooling, the sensors use magnetometers (a magnetic field-measuring device) inside a magnetic shield to shut out other fields – including the Earth’s – while shining a laser beam through an atomic vapour and using a photo detector to assess how much light has penetrated depending on the field it detects.
Participants in the study wearing the sensors opened and closed their eyes at 10 to 20-second intervals, firing tiny electric currents in their brain’s neurons and generating magnetic fields the sensors successfully picked up.
As the sensors are modular, meaning they can be attached to each other like Lego bricks, the team plan to connect multiple sensors to create an entire brain imaging system capable of making significant advancements in the detection and delivery of treatment of Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases – an achievement that has not been possible with US-produced commercially available quantum brain sensors.
The greater the number of sensors, the more detailed images of a patient’s brain the team will be able to create – paving the way for whole-brain scanning.
“Our quantum sensor has to be exceptionally sensitive to pick up the magnetic fields in the brain which are very weak indeed,” said Thomas Coussens PhD student at the University. “To put it into context, the magnetic field of a brain is a trillion times lower than that of a fridge magnet.
“This is the culmination of many months of hard work and I am thrilled to see our first brain signal using our very own quantum sensors built entirely by us here at the University of Sussex.”
Researchers from the University of Nottingham announced they had developed a helmet-style wearable brain scanner that can be adapted to any head shape or size in December last year.