NIST Tiny Device Can Gauge and Monitor Neurological Activity

April 23, 2012, By Sanjeev Ramachandran

It is hard to keep track of all the technology created today. We have been seeing tons of creations – from mobile phones and tablets to technology that can even be used in medical facilities and so on.  The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has invented a brilliant and tiny atom-based magnetic sensor which has succeeded in measuring brain’s activity.

The sensor that has been under development from 2004, when the team was first able to use it to track a human heartbeat in 2010. NIST worked in Berlin with a couple of German scientists then.

The lab was said to have a very good magnetic shielding to stop the Earth’s magnetic field, which can interfere and ruin their research as they use extremely sensitive measurements.

The sensor can measure signals of even a picotesla when MRIs can measure signals close to 1 to 8 Teslas. NIST says that in the future, the sensor will perform tenfold by increasing is capability to detect light.

The tiny sensor, which contains the gas of a 100 billion rubidium atoms and fiber optics that detect the light signals which is later used to calculate the magnetic fields, has improved signal clarity as they use a new type of optical fiber.

Svenja Knappe, the co-author of NIST has been quoted as saying that they are focusing on making the sensors small, getting them close to the signal source, manufacture them and ultimately reduce the cost.

By making an inexpensive system, every hospital and football team can have one to test for traumatic brain injuries.

The NIST researches aim to improve a technique which can measure the magnetic field produced by the electrical activity in the brain called magnetoencephalography or MEG. You can test a patient for traumatic brain injury, screen visual perception in newborns and you can also screen the neurological activity that takes place in the brain before surgeries and other such important medical procedures.

Right now, the superconducting quantum interference device (SQUID) is the gold standard MEG and it can only work at extremely low temperatures.  It comes with a very big contraption with cryogenic coolants whereas the device from NIST is small, cheaper, lighter and better. It won’t be long before the hard work of the researches of NIST pays off.

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