Quantum Sensors Power Brain Imaging System to Help Scientists Investigate Autism

A wearable brain imaging system uses quantum sensors to conduct research into autism. Photo by Fakurian Design/Unsplash

A wearable brain imaging system installed at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children uses quantum sensors to conduct research into autism, according to the UK Technology Hub.

The Hub’s researchers developed the system through the recently launched spin-out company Cerca Magnetics, the organization reports.

The brain scanner relies on quantum enabled sensors to measure magnetic fields above the scalp —  or magnetoencephalography (MEG). Researchers at the Toronto hospital scan children who have been identified as having a greater chance of developing autism because they have siblings with the condition.

Margot Taylor, a world renowned neuroscientist, is leading the Canadian study that will scan the volunteer children from age 12 months and up on a regular basis and track the development of brain function, looking for differences between those who do or do not develop autism.

“Being an initial site for the Cerca OPM-MEG research system is incredible,” said Taylor, Director of Functional Neuroimaging, Department of Diagnostic Imaging. “For the Cerca team to have delivered the system on-time and with the achieved sensitivity and spatial accuracy, even in our busy city centre location and with the on-going challenges of travel during the pandemic, was truly excellent. We are very excited to be starting the longitudinal research study of brain function in the young siblings of children with autism and toddlers with autism. The Cerca OPM-MEG is essential for this cutting-edge research that was simply not previously possible.”

Ryan Hill, Hub researcher at the University of Nottingham led the installation in Canada. Hill was the first person to scan toddlers using this new quantum enabled device.

“At the University of Nottingham we are fortunate to have an environment relatively free from magnetic interference, but this is not the case for many institutions around the world (such as Sick Kids), where busy traffic, building work, metro systems, and other infrastructure in a busy city create a lot of magnetic interference,” said Hill. “Thanks to the help and collaboration of the team at Sick Kids during the development of our system, we have been able to mitigate these problems, and successfully acquire high quality brain imaging data in young children and adults alike, including participants with dental wires that could not be scanned in traditional systems.”

The Cerca system is unique because it is the only “wearable” MEG system where patients can move freely during the scan. It can adapt to different head sizes, which makes it particularly useful when scanning children. It also offers considerably higher sensitivity and spatial specificity compared to the current state of the art MEG systems, while also being less expensive than conventional systems.

“It is incredible to have installed our first system at a world leading research site twelve months to the day after the formation of Cerca,” said David Woolger, CEO of Cerca Magnetics. “This is all down to the incredible hard work and effort by the team. It has been amazing to work with such talented and motivated people and I am excited to move forward with the next challenge, which is the move to clinical approval for the device as part of the treatment pathway for epilepsy. To be involved with this groundbreaking device which has the ability to improve the lives of so many children with neurological conditions is extraordinary.”

Matt Swayne
Matt Swayne
Matt Swayne is a contributor at The Quantum Insider. He focuses on breaking news about quantum discoveries and quantum computing.

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