Bike helmet brain scanner used with children for first time

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A new wearable bike helmet-style brain scanner system could make scans easier and more reliable in children, researchers say.

It allows natural movement during scanning and has been used in a study with young children for the first time. Scientists say this marks an important step towards improving our understanding of brain development in childhood.

Brain scanning technologies, provide useful information about brain function, but most scanners are optimised for adults.

A young child with his mother having an MEG brain scan (Rebeccah Slater/PA)

As well as differences in head size, children also tend to move around more than adults during the procedure, which can negatively impact the quality of the scan.

In a paper published in Nature Communications, researchers demonstrate how they have enhanced their groundbreaking Magnetoencephalography (MEG) technology with a novel helmet design.

The Scientists say the scanner could help investigate healthy brain development as well as neuro-developmental disorders such as autism and epilepsy.

Researchers mounted small, lightweight sensors on the helmet, which can follow the head’s motion, so that the quality of the scan is not affected by the patient’s movement.

This allowed them to record the brain’s response to maternal touch in young children aged two and five years old.

Youngsters were able to wear a replica of the helmets at home, or even ride a bike to help them get used to wearing the device and reduce anxiety.

To demonstrate that it can be adapted to any head shape and size, the scientists from the Sir Peter Mansfield Imaging Centre at the University of Nottingham, working with researchers from the University of Oxford and UCL, recorded brain activity in a teenager playing video games and a 24-year-old playing the ukulele.

Ryan Hill, the PhD 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 to 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.”

Professor Matthew Brookes, who leads the MEG research at the University of Nottingham, said: “This study is a hugely important step towards getting MEG closer to being used in a clinical setting, showing it has real potential for use in children.

“The challenge now is to expand this further, realising the theoretical benefits such as high sensitivity and spatial resolution, and refining the system design and fabrication, taking it away from the laboratory and towards a commercial product.”

Chris Price
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