According to a team of quantum physicists at the University of Sussex, identifying brain diseases such as dementia, ALS, and Parkinson’s disease may become easier in the future thanks to new highly sensitive quantum sensors for the brain. In a paper published in Scientific Reports, the team’s research findings indicated that the quantum sensors could identify a slowing in the speed at which signals travel across the brain.
The scanners currently being developed by the team can detect the magnetic fields generated when neurons fire. These magnetic fields can allow a doctor to measure changes in brain waves from one moment to the next by tracking the speed at which brain signals travel across the brain. The scan results can then be compared to any subsequent tests to check whether there has been a slowing in brain activity. Any slowing of brain activity is often a sign of specific brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease. The comparative data and new methods of identifying biomarkers that this new technology allows for could be crucial in identifying the early onset of any of these diseases.
Aikaterini Gialopsou is the paper’s lead author and a doctoral researcher in the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at the University of Sussex and Brighton and Sussex Medical School. She believes the discovery could be significant for all doctors and patients concerned with the development of brain disorders.
“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,” she says.
The technology behind the scanners is called magnetoencephalography (MEG). Currently, MEG scanners exist, but they are only used in highly controlled laboratory experiments due to their size and the cost of operating them. However, when combined with quantum sensors, MEG technology can lead to several improvements compared to existing brain scanners.
The scanners currently used to measure brain activity, such as EEG or fMRI scanners, are designed to send a signal to the brain and record what comes back. By contrast, quantum scanners can passively measure what is occurring inside the brain from the outside. This method of scanning is non-invasive, eliminating any health risk that might be associated with invasive scanning.
The most significant improvement these new scanners offer is the greater accuracy they have over existing scanners. This increased accuracy is due, in part, to the fact that the sensors can get closer to the skull. The result of this closer proximity means that the sensors improve both the spatial and temporal resolution of the results. This would allow a doctor to see brain signals that are usually inaccessible to other scanners.
According to Professor Peter Kruger, the Head of the Quantum Systems and Devices Lab at the University of Sussex, the use of quantum technology is what improves the accuracy of the sensors.
“The sensors contain a gas of rubidium atoms,” Professor Kruger explains. “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 millimeters.”
Gialopsou is hopeful that this new development in quantum sensor technology will be crucial for helping move the scanners out of the laboratory and into real-world 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,” she says. “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.”
Written by Chaim Ford