New research has presented a possible method of studying the brain’s most dynamic growth periods during childhood. This flexible, brain-scanning technique could help researchers learn about early brain development and how disorders like autism develop.
This proof-of-concept study was published Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications and demonstrates the benefits, as well as current limitations of a device known as an called OPM-MED (or optically pumped magnetometers-magnetoencephalography). OPMs are rod-like tools for measuring the magnetic fields generated by the brain, and the device is made by adapting a standard bike helmet to incorporate them. Looking like a bike helmet with many corded-spikes sticking off the top, the flexible array of OPMs, as well as the secured nature of the bike helmet, allow the device to be adapted to different head sizes and for different levels of movement without losing sensitivity.
Ryan Hill, the study’s lead author, tells Inverse that this approach would help them learn more about how brain “networks” develop and what changes in that development can lead to disorders, like autism.
“We are particularly interested in looking at how the brain develops ‘networks’,” Hill says. “[But] how these functional connections (so called connectivity) form in the early years of life is poorly understood. Gaining a better understanding will certainly inform how the human brain develops. And moreover, abnormalities in these networks are implicated in a variety of developmental disorders such as autism. Understanding the developmental trajectory will undoubtedly help future management and treatment of these disorders.”
The bike helmet’s relatively light, low-cost nature makes it stand apart from previous attempts at brain-scanning. Traditional magnetoencephalography requires cryogenic cooling to operate, although it is more accurate. Other brain-scanning systems such as MRI’s or EEGs either limit movement or are extremely sensitive to it. Those limits present challenges to scientists looking to broadly measure the effects of naturalistic learning, like playing video games or learning a new instrument. This is something that OPM-MED is much better at, the researchers say.
To demonstrate that their new helmet worked the team tested it in three different scenarios. These scenarios included a young child reacting to a parent’s touch, a teenager playing a video game, and an adult learning to play the ukulele. In order to ensure the helmet did not move around on the participants’ heads during these dynamic tasks, the team measured its position against glasses worn by participants and tracked the movement of the helmet using infrared cameras.
While the sensitivity of the OPM-MED in the trials was limited to the front of the brain due to the placement of the OPMs, the team was still able to accurately measure the brain activity expected from these naturalistic activities. But, there is still a limitation to this approach as well though, write the scientists, namely that the OPM-MED itself is fairly heavy — nearly four pounds, not including cable weight. As innovation is continually made in this space though they have hopes to lower the weight of the device to just over one pound.
Hill tells Inverse that in addition to improving the technology for this approach they also have plans to expand their study scope as well, to 20-30 children.
“We have recently secures some internal funding for a larger pilot study where we will aim to scan around 20-30 children,” with the intention of looking an network connectivity,” Hill says.
In addition to helping scientists learn more about early brain development and potentially early brain abnormalities, having access to people’s brain patterns through non- or minimally-invasive tech has also become a pet interest of technologists like Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg as well.
Musk revealed details about his Neuralink technology this summer after years of whispers and pitches it as a way to create a more symbiotic relationship between our brains and artificial intelligence. Unlike the OPM-MED, which is non-invasive, Neuralink plans to operate using small implanted microchips on the surface of a human participant’s brain that would wireless connect to outside devices. This is an approach similar to those used when creating assistive technologies through brain-computer interfaces.
For Facebook, the ultimate goal is a little murkier but CEO Mark Zuckerberg told employees in September the company is “completely” focused on non-invasive scanning techniques over invasive. After a recent $1 million acquisition of a brain-computer interfacing wristband company called CTRL-Labs, it appears that Facebook may also be going the way of Musk towards a more intuitive and integrated connection between our brains and our machines.
While these Silicon Valley approaches to brain-scanning probably won’t result in mind control, it does offer another opportunity to collect data and profit from customers, which has proven in the past to be far from secure or even ethical. Whether we will actually begin controlling our devices with our minds is still up in the air, but it doesn’t seem like interest in that kind of technology is going away anytime soon.
Read the abstract below:
The human brain undergoes significant functional and structural changes in the first decades of life, as the foundations for human cognition are laid down. However, non-invasive imaging techniques to investigate brain function throughout neurodevelopment are limited due to growth in head-size with age and substantial head movement in young participants. Experimental designs to probe brain function are also limited by the unnatural environment typical brain imaging systems impose. However, developments in quantum technology allowed fabrication of a new generation of wearable magnetoencephalography (MEG) technology with the potential to revolutionise electrophysiological measures of brain activity. Here we demonstrate a lifespan-compliant MEG system, showing recordings of high fidelity data in toddlers, young children, teenagers and adults. We show how this system can support new types of experimental paradigm involving naturalistic learning. This work reveals a new approach to functional imaging, providing a robust platform for investigation of neurodevelopment in health and disease.