Small child building a Lego structure

Helmet-style scanner lets kids roam free during MEG imaging

Image credit: Dreamstime

The first wearable magnetoencephalography (MEG) brain-scanning system has been developed by UK academics and the charity Young Epilepsy. The system will make the process of getting an MEG much easier for children.

MEG is a non-invasive form of imaging which measures the tiny magnetic fields produced by electrical activity in the brain. It can be used to analyse brain function with millisecond and millimetre precision, allowing clinicians to identify the exact location of the source of epileptic seizures, for instance.

Until now, MEG scanning - which is not as mature as other forms of imaging, such as MRI - has required the patient to stay completely still during the scan, sometimes requiring sedation. Traditional MEG scanners are also optimised for adults and are of limited use in children due to their size.

The development of the first wearable MEG helmet will make the process far easier for children, especially those with complex needs, by allowing them to move freely during the scan. The helmet can fit a child of any age and provides higher sensitivity and spatial precision compared to the current scanner.

Key to making this possible is the replacement of SQUIDs – superconducting loops used to measure tiny magnetic fields, which must be kept supercooled to -269°C and thus require large machines in which they can be submerged in liquid helium – with the optically pumped magnetometer (OPM). OPMs use lasers and the fundamental properties of atoms to detect magnetic fields. They can also operate at room temperature, removing the need for expensive and clunky machinery.

Conventional MEGs are also made inside magnetically shielded rooms which are large and expensive, as they require multiple layers of metal alloy for shielding. The new system also uses a different type of magnetically shielded room – the light Mu-Room – which is a fraction of the weight of existing MEG rooms and is not as expensive. This means that, in future, many other hospitals could build their own MEG suites using OPM-MEG.

For now, the technology is being used at the Young Epilepsy health and research centre in Surrey.

“At Young Epilepsy, we are always mindful that each and every child is different,” said Rosemarie Pardington, director of integrated care at the charity. “The way their epilepsy affects them will be unique and personal to them.

“Having a facility like the MEG is going to make an absolutely massive difference to the children and their families. The wonderful thing is that clinicians already recognise MEG as a reliable tool on which to base difficult decisions, such as surgery options, due to the richness and the reliability of the data. This takes it to a wearable form and makes it all a much easier experience for children.”

Mark Devlin, chief executive of Young Epilepsy, said: “Children and young people inform everything that we do at Young Epilepsy and the development of the MEG is no different – they have been involved in the design of the room itself and of the helmet, as well as helping us to understand how we can keep children calm and entertained through the diagnostic experience.

“On a personal level, I’m really excited to see how this technology can transform their diagnostic experience for children and their families. It is really stressful going through tests – as a child or as a parent – and we want to make this technology as child-friendly as possible and to really take much of the stress out of the experience.”

Tracy Benning, mother of 15-year-old Samuel who has epilepsy, said: “With the new MEG, it is going to be more of a family-friendly environment where you can bring your favourite toys and your siblings along. Sam’s older brother really struggled with understanding at the beginning – it was a scary process for him also. To make it more normal will be a huge help for families like ours.”

The charity worked in partnership with the University of Nottingham, University College London’s Institute of Neurology, the UCL Wellcome Centre for Human Neuroimaging, Cerca Magnetics Ltd, and Magnetic Shields Ltd to bring the wearable scanner to fruition.

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