Wearable brain scanners give new insights into brain development
The Sector > Research > Wearable brain scanners give ‘clearest ever picture’ of children’s brain development

Wearable brain scanners give ‘clearest ever picture’ of children’s brain development

by Freya Lucas

June 28, 2024

Wearable brain scanners are giving researchers “the clearest ever picture” of young children’s developing brains, opening up new possibilities for tracking how critical developmental milestones, like walking and talking, are underpinned by changing brain function, and how neurodevelopmental conditions like autism emerge.


Led by scientists from the University of Nottingham’s School of Physics and Astronomy, the research team are using magnetoencephalography (MEG) scanners to measure brain electrophysiology in children as young as two years of age. 


Based on quantum technology, the 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 2-13 years) and 26 adults (aged 21-34 years) 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.


Dr Lukas Rier and Dr Natalie Rhodes co-led the work, which was funded by the Engineering and Physics Research Council (EPSRC), and included academic collaborators from SickKids Hospital in Toronto, Canada, and industry partners from US based atomic device company QuSpin and Nottingham based company Cerca Magnetics Limited.


Dr Rhodes was an undergraduate student in Physics, and a postgraduate student when the work was carried out, and explained the significance of the work. 


“This study is the first of its kind using wearable MEG technology and provides a platform to launch new clinical research in childhood disorders,” she said. 


“This means that we can begin to explore not only healthy brain development, but also the neural substrates that underlie atypical development in children.”


For Dr Rier, the portable and wearable technology has opened up new opportunities to study and understand children’s brains at much younger ages than was previously possible. 


“There are important reasons for moving to younger participants: from a neuroscientific viewpoint, many critical milestones in development occur in the first few years (even months) of life,” he explained. 


“If we can use our technology to measure the brain activities that underpin these developmental milestones, this would offer a new understanding of brain function.”


Access the findings in full here

Download The Sector's new App!

ECEC news, jobs, events and more anytime, anywhere.

Download App on Apple App Store Button Download App on Google Play Store Button