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Thinking cap: Wearable tech tracks kids’ brain development

17 June 2024

A wearable brain scanner has provided the clearest ever picture of young children's developing brains, mapping electrical brain activity to reveal how developmental milestones and neurodevelopmental conditions like autism emerge.

The research team, led by scientists from the University of Nottingham’s School of Physics and Astronomy, used a novel design of magnetoencephalography (MEG) scanner to measure brain electrophysiology in children as young as two. The findings have been published in eLife.

Brain cells operate and communicate by producing electrical currents. These currents generate tiny magnetic fields that can be detected outside the head. 

Researchers used their novel system to measure these fields, and mathematical modelling to turn those fields into high-fidelity images showing, millisecond-by-millisecond, which parts of the brain are engaged when we undertake tasks.

The wearable brain scanner is based on quantum technology and uses LEGO-brick-sized sensors – called optically pumped magnetometers (OPMs) – which are incorporated into a lightweight helmet to measure the fields generated by brain activity. 

The unique design means the system can be adapted to fit any age group, from toddlers to adults. Sensors can be placed much closer to the head, enhancing data quality. The system also allows people to move whilst wearing it, making it ideal for scanning children who find it hard to keep still in conventional scanners.

27 children (aged two- to 13 years old) and 26 adults (aged 21-34 years old) took part in the study, which examined a fundamental component of brain function called ‘neural oscillations’ (or brain waves). 

Different areas of the brain are responsible for different aspects of behaviour and neural oscillations promote communication between these regions. 

The research team measured how this connectivity changes as we grow up, and how our brains use short, punctate bursts of electrophysiological activity to inhibit networks of brain regions, and consequently to control how we attend to incoming sensory stimuli.

World-renowned Neuroscientist Dr Margot Taylor – also an author of the paper – is leading research into autism in Toronto.

She said: “Our work is dedicated to studying brain function in young children with and without autism. 

“This study is the first to demonstrate that we can track brain development from a very young age. This is hugely exciting for possible translation to clinical research and work such as this helps us understand how autism develops.”

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