Quantum sensors that detect magnetic fields generated by firing neurons could help identify neurodegenerative diseases such as dementia and Parkinson’s.
Led by Sussex University and Brighton and Sussex Medical School, the quantum sensors are said to present a more efficient and accurate alternative to EEG and fMRI scanners. The research, carried out with scientists from Brighton University and the German National Metrology Institute PTB, is detailed in Scientific Reports.
Measuring moment-to-moment changes in the brain, the sensors track the speed at which signals move across the brain. This time-element is important because it means a patient could be scanned twice several months apart to check whether brain activity is slowing down. According to Sussex University, the technology introduces a new method to spot bio-markers of early health problems.
“We’ve shown for the first time that quantum sensors can produce highly accurate results in terms of both space and time. While other teams have shown the benefits in terms of locating signals in the brain, this is the first time that quantum sensors have proved to be so accurate in terms of the timing of signals too,” said lead author Aikaterini Gialopsou, a doctoral researcher in the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at the University of Sussex and Brighton and Sussex Medical School. “This could be really significant for doctors and patients concerned with the development of brain disorders.”
The quantum sensors are believed to more accurate than EEG or fMRI scanners, due in part to their closer proximity to the skull, which improves the spatial and temporal resolution of the results. This double improvement of time and space accuracy means brain signals can be tracked in ways that are inaccessible to other types of sensors.
“It’s the quantum technology which makes these sensors so accurate”, said Professor Peter Kruger, who leads the Quantum Systems and Devices lab at Sussex University. “The sensors contain a gas of rubidium atoms. Beams of laser light are shone at the atoms, and when the atoms experience changes in a magnetic field, they emit light differently. Fluctuations in the emitted light reveal changes in the magnetic activity in the brain. The quantum sensors are accurate within milliseconds, and within several millimetres.”
The technology is underpinned by magnetoencephalography (MEG). Combining MEG with these new quantum sensors has developed a non-invasive way to probe activity in the brain. Unlike existing brain scanners – which send a signal into the brain and record what come back – MEG passively measures what is occurring inside from the outside, eliminating the health risks currently associated for some patients with invasive scanners.
MEG scanners are expensive and bulky, making them challenging to use in clinical practice, but the development of quantum sensor technology could be crucial for transferring the scanners from highly controlled laboratory environments into clinical settings.
“It’s our hope with this development…that in discovering this enhanced function of quantum brain scanners the door is opened to further developments that could bring about a quantum revolution in neuroscience,” Gialopsou said in a statement. “This matters because, although the scanners are in their infancy, it has implications for future developments that could lead to crucial early diagnosis of brain diseases, such as ALS, MS and even Alzheimer’s. That’s what motivates us as a team.”