It may look like some crazy mashup of The Phantom of the Opera and the weird John Travolta alien from Battlefield Earth, but this sci-fi-style piece of futuristic headgear is actually a wearable portable brain scanner that is able to record neural activity while you’re on the go.
Unlike the large stationary functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanners which are often utilized for brain imaging, this magnetoencephalography (MEG) system could open up whole new ways of studying brain activity, without requiring subjects to remain entirely motionless while this is going on.
“MEG works by measuring the weak magnetic fields that are produced outside the skull by electrical activity in the brain,” Richard Bowtell, a professor of physics at the U.K.’s University of Nottingham, told Digital Trends. “By mapping the spatial variation of these magnetic fields over a portion of the head surface, we can work out whereabouts in the brain the current is flowing. To make the first wearable MEG system, we used a new kind of quantum sensor that is very sensitive to magnetic fields. These optically pumped magnetometers have been used before for measuring brain activity, but we exploited new commercially available sensors which have been miniaturized and made robust by QuSpin Inc., which were mounted in a 3D-printed head cast.”
Bowtell said that the head cast was 3D printed to fit snugly over the subject’s head, and includes slots which can be used to site the sensors that are positioned over the wearer’s motor cortex. “It was printed by Chalk Studios in London and they made it look very cool,” he continued.
Aside from its striking appearance, Bowtell said that the wearable opens up exciting new opportunities for experiments in which subjects move their heads, such as mapping neural activity in a person who is bouncing a ball on a bat. Right now the limitation is that users are stuck moving inside a shielded box enclosure, which prohibits walking around. However, this could be changed in future iterations of the wearable, which will allow greater levels of natural movement.
A paper describing the work was recently published in the journal Nature.
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