Call it neuroscience on the go. Scientists have developed a backpack that tracks and stimulates brain activity as people go about their daily lives. Advances may allow researchers to understand how the brain works outside a laboratory – and how to monitor diseases such as Parkinson’s and post-traumatic stress disorder in real-world settings.
The technology is “an inspiring demonstration of what’s possible” with portable neuroscience equipment, says Timothell Spellman, a neurobiologist at Weil Cornell Medicine, who was not involved with the work. He says that with a backpack and its huge equipment, the landscape can be broadened for neuroscience research to study the brain while the body is in motion.
Usually, when scientists want to scan the brain, they need a lot of room — and a lot of money. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanners, which detect activity in different regions of the brain, are about the size of a pickup truck and can cost more than $ 1 million. And patients should remain in the machine for about 1 hour to ensure a clear, readable scan.
Approaches such as transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) that blink the brain – often to treat severe depression – are also not portable; Patients should sit stationary and upright in a laboratory for approximately 30 minutes, while a large coil electrically activates the magnetic flux through their skull.
Exploring better, researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) have developed what they call a mobile deep brain recording and stimulation platform.
Here’s how it works: A stick comes out of a 4-kg backpack to rest near the top of the patient’s skull. There, the stick can communicate with a nerve implant that is located deep in the brain. Meanwhile, the backpack is filled with monitors – a setup that allows real-time data collection from implants. At the same time, depending on the experiment, the participant may wear additional gear to measure brain and body movements, including an electrode electroencephalography cap in which electrodes monitor brain activity, a pair of virtual reality goggles that allow movement. Tracks, and the other device tracks heart and breathing rates. All of this information can be synchronized with signals from implants.
“The beauty of it is that you have multiple streams of data coming together,” says UCLA neurophysicist Zahara Aghazan.
In lab testing, the team was able to show that the backpack records activity and stimulates different brain regions to keep people stable. It was also able to collect data similar to the fMRI machine and stimulate the brain similar to TMS, the team reports in this week Neuron.
Not being tied to a lab setting could enable scientists to study how the brain functions while people move and interact with others rather than lying inside an fMRI machine, the researchers say.
However, there is a catch: only those patients who have nerve implants can use the device. Approximately 150,000 people worldwide have implants that doctors use to treat and monitor a range of conditions, including Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
The team released software and blueprints of the backpack for all scientists to use, says the study’s author, Eros Topalovic, a PhD. Students at UCLA. He said the hope is that other researchers can use the technology to study all types of neurological conditions without the constraints of a laboratory or hospital bed.