Better Brain Scans


new_mriDespite the pretty pictures generated by today’s fMRI machines, they are lacking in both spatial and temporal resolution. Siemens is addressing this issue by commercializing a new kind of scanner technology that uses an array of sensors to produce more detail in less time.

MRI machines in medical centers typically have up to 12 coils, but the new devices under development have up to 96 coils arrayed in a dense field over the scalp. “A small detector up close is more efficient,” says Lawrence Wald, a biophysicist at Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), whose team has developed the devices in collaboration with Siemens…

Siemens is now working on a commercial version of the 32-channel array developed at MGH, which is expected to be on the market later this year. The imaging device, now being tested by some of Siemens’s customers, “increases spatial or temporal resolution,” says Jeffrey Bundy, vice president of the MR division at Siemens Medical Solutions, headquartered in Malvern, PA…

The instrument could also impact our basic understanding of the brain. “The spatial resolution of fMRI is somewhat limited,” says Gabrieli. “We’ve hit the wall on a lot of scientific questions.” With higher-resolution images, scientists could try to determine neurological basis of various aspects of cognitive function. Gabrieli, for example, says that he’d like to figure out if different parts of the amygdala–a small structure deep in the brain that plays a key role in emotion–regulate different emotions, such as fear and joy.

While Siemens is putting the finishing touches on the 32-channel array, Wald and his colleague Graham Wiggins, also at MGH, are already developing new scanners with even more channels, including 96-channel and 128-channel arrays. “These are the highest-resolution brain images being taken today,” says Wald. [From MIT Technology Review: A Better Brain Scanner – New brain scanners could shed light on fear, joy, and disease]

There’s little doubt that the the first application of the improved scanners will be for medical applications and neuroscience research. Once the improved scanners are available, though, neuromarketing and neuroeconomics applications won’t be far behind.

While the article doesn’t provide specific scan resolution details, the promise of more detailed and faster scans (with even better performance in the pipeline) seems consistent with Ray Kurzweil’s prediction of exponential improvement in his book, The Singularity is Near. Of course, in any exponential series, the earlier steps are usually the easiest. Nevertheless, this technology looks very promising – soon, perhaps, we’ll have better information than a general area of the brain lighting up when viewing an ad.

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  1. Peter Bandettini says

    Regarding the above message, there is a bit of a misunderstanding. FMRI will no doubt be improved by multiple coils, etc..but since the contrast is intrinsically based on blood flow/oxygenation changes with brain activation, there is only so much resolution that one may be able to obtain – limited by the hemodynamics. Also, Siemens is not really “working on this.” Researchers all over the world – and not associated with any company – are the ones working on improving fMRI resolution and interpretability as well as multi coil methodology. Actually Phillips is probably leading the field on the multi-coil technology if you want to talk companies.

  2. The Prize Blog says

    I agree with Peter. I don’t really see Siemens in multi-coil technology instead philips is the one to have done work in this regard

  3. Mike says

    Re Peter Bandettini’s reply:

    Although there is an obvious limitation with FMRI, this does not discount the exponential growth in resolution of brain scanners. As I’m sure you are aware Moore’s Law from computer science also predicted exponential growth of computer speed. However it hasn’t always been with one technology. e.g. at first the number of transistors on silicon was increased, then later when this started becoming harder due to physical limits people worked on multiple processors and pipelining of computer instruction etc.

    The same thing will happen with brain scanning. FMRI will increase in resolution until it’s limit is hit, but by then another technology will supersede it, and then that will dominate for a while until the next technology supersedes that. With so many scientists and researchers working in parallel this system works.

    Back to the computer analogy quantum computers are being worked on in parallel with current silicon technologies. Eventually they will supersede silicon computers in regards to technology and speed.

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