New helmet-style brain scanner offers hope to children with epilepsy

A young girl wearing the the world’s first wearable MEG (magnetoencephalography) brain scanning system (Handout/PA)
A young girl wearing the the world’s first wearable MEG (magnetoencephalography) brain scanning system (Handout/PA)

Children with epilepsy will be able to get an easier diagnosis thanks to the development of a new helmet-style brain scanner.

The charity Young Epilepsy has worked with researchers and academics to create the world’s first wearable MEG (magnetoencephalography) brain scanning system.

Until now, MEG scanning, which is used to evaluate brain function, required a child to stay completely still for long periods, or even be sedated during the scan.

The new OPM-MEG helmet makes the process easier for children, especially those with complex health conditions, by allowing them to move around and do activities such as playing with toys.

The helmet can fit a child of any age but also offers higher sensitivity and spatial accuracy compared to the current scanner.

Rosemarie Pardington, director of integrated care at Young Epilepsy, said:  “At Young Epilepsy, we are always mindful that each and every child is different.

“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.”

Conventional MEG recordings are made inside magnetically shielded rooms which are very large and expensive because they rely on multiple layers of metal alloy for the shielding.

Current scanners also rely on magnetic field detectors which must be cooled to minus 269C in order to operate.

The cooling process, which involves bathing the sensors in liquid helium, is extremely costly.

The new OPM-MEG uses a different type of sensor – optically pumped magnetometers (OPMs) – which do not rely on cooling.

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 many hospitals could eventually be able to build their own suites using the technology.

For now, the new scanning set-up can be used at Young Epilepsy’s health and research centre in Surrey.

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, the 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.”

For the new scanner, the charity worked in partnership with Cerca Magnetics Ltd, Magnetic Shields Ltd, the University of NottinghamUniversity College London (UCL) Institute of Neurology and the UCL Wellcome Centre for Human Neuroimaging.

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