New spin-out partnership signals quantum leap for brain imaging

Published on
December 8, 2020

A new type of wearable brain scanner is a step closer to being used in hospitals with the launch of a new spin-out company formed by UK Quantum Technology Hub Sensors and Timing researchers at the University of Nottingham and Magnetic Shields Ltd (MSL).

Cerca Magnetics Limited aims to bring the world’s most advanced brain scanner to market. The Cerca Scanner has been specially designed to allow people to move freely whilst being scanned, and will offer an unprecedented window on brain function and give new hope to people suffering with severe neurological illnesses, such as epilepsy.

Hub researchers at the University of Nottingham have been developing the technology for the wearable brain scanner for the past five years in collaboration with neuroscientists at University College London. Their research, funded by the UK Quantum Technologies Programme, Innovate UK, and the Wellcome Trust, has demonstrated the ability to create images of the brain with millimetre accuracy, even when the person being scanned is moving. This opens up new possibilities for imaging babies and children.

This new wearable scanner is based on a technique called magnetoencephalography (MEG), in which the tiny magnetic fields generated by electrical current flow in brain cells are measured. Mathematical reconstruction of those fields generates images showing moment-to-moment changes in brain activity. These unique pictures can tell us how our brains respond when we perform a mental task, and more importantly, how things begin to go wrong in neurological or mental health problems.

Whilst other MEG scanners exist, the Cerca System is unique since it is the only “wearable” MEG system allowing patients to move freely during the scan. It also uniquely adapts to different head sizes, making it possible to scan adults, or babies, using the same system. It offers considerably higher sensitivity and spatial specificity compared to the best existing systems and all of this can be achieved at lower cost.

Dr Elena Boto, University of Nottingham scientist and chief technology officer for Cerca, said: “5 years ago, we started with a few equations on the back of an envelope, and a few lines of computer code to simulate a system. To have seen this mature into a commercialisable imaging system, which can outperform anything available currently, has been remarkable. There are many advantages to our system but for me the biggest is the ability to scan babies and children. Neurological disorders, like epilepsy, often strike in young children and this new system will provide new information to medical professionals which they can use in treatment planning.”