MIT engineers have developed a sensor that can be used to measure optical and electrical signals in the brain, using MRI.  Credit: Felice Frankel
MIT engineers have developed a sensor that can be used to measure optical and electrical signals in the brain, using MRI.

Credit: Felice Frankel

Technique could be used to detect light or electrical fields in living tissue.

Researchers commonly study brain function by monitoring two types of electromagnetism — electric fields and light. However, most methods for measuring these phenomena in the brain are very invasive.

MIT engineers have now devised a new technique to detect either electrical activity or optical signals in the brain using a minimally invasive sensor for magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

MRI is often used to measure changes in blood flow that indirectly represent brain activity, but the MIT team has devised a new type of MRI sensor that can detect tiny electrical currents, as well as light produced by luminescent proteins. (Electrical impulses arise from the brain’s internal communications, and optical signals can be produced by a variety of molecules developed by chemists and bioengineers.)

MRI offers a way to sense things from the outside of the body in a minimally invasive fashion. It does not require a wired connection into the brain. We can implant the sensor and just leave it there.
Aviad Hai, an MIT postdoc and the lead author of the study

This kind of sensor could give neuroscientists a spatially accurate way to pinpoint electrical activity in the brain. It can also be used to measure light, and could be adapted to measure chemicals such as glucose, the researchers say.

Alan Jasanoff, an MIT professor of biological engineering, brain and cognitive sciences, and nuclear science and engineering, and an associate member of MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research, is the senior author of the paper, which appears in the Oct. 22 issue of Nature Biomedical Engineering. Postdocs Virginia Spanoudaki and Benjamin Bartelle are also authors of the paper.

Jasanoff’s lab is interested in using this type of sensor to detect neural signals in the brain, and they envision that it could also be used to monitor electromagnetic phenomena elsewhere in the body, including muscle contractions or cardiac activity.

 

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