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Weird-Looking New Brain Scanner Uses Light

May 22, 2014
Written by: , Filed in: Neuroradiology, Pediatric Radiology
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A contraption that shines dozens of tiny LED lights on the outside of the head actually works as a brain scanner, according to researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.

The researchers say they can get reliable data to a depth of about one centimeter of tissue. That’s enough, they say, to reach areas involved with many higher brain functions, including memory, language, and self-awareness.

Joseph Culver, PhD, is senior author of an article about the research published online this week in Nature Photonics. He said that, like MRI, diffuse optical tomography (DOT) reads blood flow:

When the neuronal activity of a region in the brain increases, highly oxygenated blood flows to the parts of the brain doing more work, and we can detect that. It’s roughly akin to spotting the rush of blood to someone’s cheeks when they blush.

Dr. Culver is an associate professor of radiology. He was quoted in a university news release.

A functional MRI brain scan requires that the subject stay still, so it can be impractical for children. And MRI’s strong magnetic fields can cause interference or injury for those with pacemakers, cochlear implants, deep brain stimulators (for Parkinson’s disease), and other electronic implants.

So optical scanning could substitute for MRI in those cases, and for PET brain scans when radiation exposure is a concern. DOT is also designed to be portable, so it could be used at a patient’s bedside or in the operating room.

“With the new improvements in image quality, DOT is moving significantly closer to the resolution and positional accuracy of fMRI,” said Adam T Eggebrecht, PhD, first author of the Nature Photonics article and a postdoctoral research fellow at Dr. Culver’s Optical Radiology Lab. “That means DOT can be used as a stronger surrogate in situations where fMRI cannot be used.”

Whatever its merits, the device looks really weird—like the snake-haired Medusa of Greek myth or a permanent-wave machine from an old-time beauty parlor.

Still, according to Dr. Culver, it works: “We’ve achieved a level of detail that, going forward, could make optical neuroimaging much more useful in research and the clinic.”

Related CME seminar (up to 21.75 AMA PRA Category 1 credits™): UCSF Neuro & Musculoskeletal Imaging

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