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Mobile brain-scanning helmet will allow subjects to be studied while on the go

Neuroscientists and researchers from the world of high-energy physics have developed the world’s first wearable PET scanner — making it possible to analyze the inner functions of the brain while subjects are on the go. It is hoped that the technology will allow for in-depth investigations to be carried out into both people with exceptional talents and also those with degenerative brain disorders like Parkinson’s disease and dementia.

“The brain is absolutely amazing,” Dr. Stan Majewski, co-investigator on the project and a faculty member in the Department of Radiology and Medical Imaging at the University of Virginia, told Digital Trends. “There’s so much about it that we don’t understand. For example, it’s fascinating to hear about savants: people with incredible capabilities in particular areas, like memory or mathematics. There are also cases where people have been involved in accidents and have emerged with particular abilities. We don’t know how or why that happens — but we would like to. And we would like to do it in conditions that are as close to everyday as possible.”

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While molecular brain imaging tools have been around for a while, what makes the so-called AM-PET Helmet so exciting is that it can be used while people are in motion. “The predecessor to this work was a very small PET system, called RatCAP, which could be mounted on the head of a lab rat,” Majewski explained. “It was a breakthrough because — instead of being a rat under anaesthesia, which has an impact on brain function — it was possible to read functional images of the brain during the rat’s behavior.”

The same is true of previous brain-imaging studies carried out on people — who have typically had be scanned in either rigidly static seated or prone positions, with only the tiniest amounts of movement permitted. While you probably won’t be going out on a dinner date in your AM-PET Helmet — although it would certainly be a conversation starter — it does open up the possibility of studying neurological phenomena that have previously been impossible to observe and can’t easily be replicated in a lab.

The other exciting aspect of the AM-PET Helmet is that it works with lower doses of radioactive tracers compared with existing scanners. At present, the number of conventional PET scans recommended for people is a whopping one per year. With the helmet developed by Majewski and neuroscientist Julie Brefczynski-Lewis, it should be safer to carry out significantly more scans.

“We want to create something to focus on applications society cares about,” Majewski concluded. “A tool like this could play a major part in helping discover more, and possibly help come up with cures for diseases like Alzheimer’s. It could be revolutionary.”