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LEDs may replace magnetism and radiation for neuroimaging


May 26, 2014

Diffuse optical tomography could offer a safer alternative to fMRI and PET scans (Photo: Tim Parker)

Diffuse optical tomography could offer a safer alternative to fMRI and PET scans (Photo: Tim Parker)

When doctors want to monitor someone's brain activity, they generally use either functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) or positron emission tomography (PET). One subjects the patient to strong magnetic fields, while the other involves radiation exposure. Scientists at Washington University in St. Louis, however, have recently had success using diffuse optical tomography (DOT). Although it may look kind of extreme, it basically just involves shining LEDs into the subject's head.

DOT itself isn't brand new, having already been used to study small regions of the brain. This latest system, however, is able to monitor up to two-thirds of the head at once. This means that it can image multiple regions and networks of the brain simultaneously.

The technology requires patients to wear a cap festooned with dozens of LEDs and light sensors. Light is emitted by the bulbs, through the subject's skull and into their brain. By analyzing how the brain tissue absorbs and scatters the light, it's possible to determine where and when highly oxygenated blood flows in. The increased blood flow is in turn an indicator of neuronal activity.

In lab tests, the new DOT system was shown to perform almost as well as fMRI on the same areas, yet without the accompanying magnetic fields. Although not harmful in all cases, these fields can cause problems in patients with electronic implants such as pacemakers, cochlear implants and deep brain stimulators. Because it doesn't involve harmful radiation, it could also be used as an alternative to PET for performing multiple scans over time.

Despite the looks of the system, it's additionally more portable than fMRI or PET setups, so it can be brought to the patient's location as needed.

One limitation of the technology is the fact that it can only reliably image the brain down to a depth of about one centimeter – it can't be used for deep brain scans. According to the university, however, "That centimeter contains some of the brain’s most important and interesting areas with many higher brain functions, such as memory, language and self-awareness, represented."

A paper on the research was recently published in the journal Nature Photonics.

Source: Washington University in St. Louis

About the Author
Ben Coxworth An experienced freelance writer, videographer and television producer, Ben's interest in all forms of innovation is particularly fanatical when it comes to human-powered transportation, film-making gear, environmentally-friendly technologies and anything that's designed to go underwater. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he spends a lot of time going over the handlebars of his mountain bike, hanging out in off-leash parks, and wishing the Pacific Ocean wasn't so far away. All articles by Ben Coxworth

I'd put on that thing anyday if it meant no longer having to lay perfectly still in a CAT scanner or MRI for a half hour.

Dave Andrews

hypocampus still beyond. many important loops still beyond. the surface is epiphenomena, not so important in investigating disorders. still i want one! wonder if nonvisible light spectrum could increase pehetration. still dreaming of a portable "diamond vacancy" fMRI pickup with mili-Tesla field generator!

Walt Stawicki

Sorry but this doesn't pass the smell test.

Just how it the light getting through the bone/skull? Then back out to be measured. Sounds like grant hunting to me.

Why not use radio waves instead as a far stronger signal even going all the way though the head with no risk. And the radar computer tech to analyze would be easy to modify.

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