Measuring Brain Activity Without Touch
Two years ago, researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in the U.S. developed a tiny magnetic sensor that could detect the human heartbeat without touching the subject’s skin. Now, the same team has improved the sensitivity of the device tenfold, making it capable of measuring human brain activity and becoming almost as sensitive – but much cheaper and easier to operate – than the best magnetometers available today.
Magnetoencephalography (MEG) is a noninvasive procedure that measures the magnetic fields generated by the brain. This helps neuroscientists understand perceptual and cognitive processes, map cerebral activity to help identify tumors in preparation for surgery, or even create better brain-computer interfaces.
Today, the gold standard in MEG technology are superconducting quantum interference devices (SQUIDs). But while extremely sensitive and effective, this technology can be very expensive in excess of $1 million per system.
This is where NIST’s magneto-meter comes in. By improving on their previous design, the researchers came up with a magnetic sensor the size of a sugar cube that is also cheaper to manufacture.
“While SQUID-based imaging systems require a large magnetically-shielded room to operate, an imaging system based on our sensors could probably be operating in a much smaller (person-sized) shielded enclosure. “These advantages will almost certainly make a potential imaging system less expensive to manufacture,” says NIST’s Dr. John Kitching.
Currently, to perform a MEG procedure, an array of over 306 SQUID sensors is mounted in heavy helmet-shaped flasks. But the newly developed sensor might enable lightweight and flexible MEG helmets that contain much fewer sensors. “We are targeting 32 sensors for our system right now,” says Kitching.
“By making an inexpensive system you could have one in every hospital to test for traumatic brain injuries and one for every football team,” says Svenja Knappe, who was part of the research team.
Source: Dario Borghino, Gizmag.com