Friday, May 28, 2010

Technology Review: Reading Baby Brains

Technology Review: Reading Baby Brains

Magnetoencephalography (MEG), a technology used to study brain function and to pinpoint diseased areas of the brain, capitalizes on the very weak magnetic fields created whenever a cluster of neurons fires at once.

A helmet, resembling a salon hair dryer, with 306 sensors hovers over the subject's head and detects where the magnetic pulses are occurring. Unlike magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines--which only show snapshots of data and require people to lie still inside a noisy, narrow tunnel while subjected to a powerful, rotating magnetic field--the MEG is pin-drop quiet and open, allowing subjects to interact with their surroundings. The resulting data can show researchers precisely where activity is occurring in the brain in real time.

A maelstrom of neural connections develop in a child's brain during the first five years of life. Understanding how interconnected circuits develop, and how babies think, could lead to a host of new insights into everything from autism to language acquisition. But gathering such information has been tricky: infants can't be ordered to stay motionless, which is required for most advanced neuroimaging techniques. Now a system that works in concert with existing imaging machinery can account for head movement and, for the first time, let researchers see detailed activity in an active baby's brain.

to study babies that were wide awake and socially engaged, researchers at the University of Washington's Institute for Learning and Brain Studies (I-LABS) worked with Helsinki-based medical device company Elekta to create a "head-positioning" system remarkably similar to GPS. Scientists strap a soft nylon cap to the baby's head.

The cap has four embedded coils, each of which emits a high-frequency wavelength indicating its relative position at all times. As the hardware system tracks the skull's movement, the software interprets the results and merges them with MEG-sensor data.

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