Nov 5, 2017 | By David

3D printing is definitely a groundbreaking technological development in and of itself, but what’s also exciting is the way that it can be used to encourage innovation in other technological fields, either by stimulating new research or by being directly implemented in practical studies. Continuing this trend, a group of scientists in the UK recently 3D printed a prototype helmet that can now be worn by test subjects in their pioneering research project. They are exploring a new form of brain imaging technique, known as Magnetoencephalography (MEG).

The research is being funded by UK biomedical research trust Wellcome, which has provided a £1.6 million Collaborative Award in Science to the team to construct a new type of MEG scanner that could potentially have four times the amount of sensitivity as devices currently used. MEG is a technique that creates maps of brain activity by measuring the magnetic fields that are generated by natural electrical currents in the brain.

Leading the research is Dr Matthew Brookes and Professor Richard Bowtell, both from the University of Nottingham’s School of Physics and Astronomy. They are working in collaboration with scientists from their school as well as from University College London, and the project is predicted to last another three years.

Studies began two years ago, as the team assessed the potential of quantum sensors to improve sensitivity in MEG scanning. The Wellcome contribution was awarded after the completion of this pilot stage, and now they can set to work on building a fully functional MEG system.

£800,000 of the total funding will be going to Nottingham, where the physics-based development needed to get the scanner working will be done. The design and production of the 3D printed prototype helmet was one of the first parts of this physical development, which is still in its early phases. Meanwhile, UCL researchers will use the rest of the grant to carry out detailed computational and theoretical modelling of the brain, framing the neuroscience and establishing what neuroscience questions can be addressed.

According to Dr Brookes, “Quantum technology has allowed the development of a new type of optical sensor which has the sensitivity to detect the weak magnetic fields from the brain. Unlike current technology, these new sensors can operate at room temperature, so they can be placed directly on the scalp surface. Our calculations show that by getting the sensors closer to the head we can quadruple the sensitivity of the field detection. This will revolutionise the kind of effect that we are able to detect from the human brain.”

Unlike the static, one-size-fits-all systems that were previously used, the new MEG system should be highly flexible and adaptable. This means that the fit will be more comfortable and patients will be able to undertake tasks and move freely in a natural environment. This will greatly expand the range of possible research questions and topics.

The new MEG system will also be particularly useful for experimenting with children, as the way the previous systems worked meant that sensitivity was limited for subjects with smaller heads. “Room temperature quantum sensors can be mounted directly on the scalp of any subject,” explains Professor Bowtell. “This will give us a projected four-fold increase in sensitivity for adults, but the sensitivity could potentially be up to a 15 or 20 fold increase for children or babies.”



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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