Bright future for brain scans

12 January 2006

Intensive-care doctors are testing out a brand-new brain scanner that will help them give premature babies a better start in life. This innovative piece of kit has unique advantages over today's typical imaging tools.

Antenna puts the new technology in the spotlight...
The scanner uses light to see what the brain is doing - an advance on ultrasound and MRI, which only tell doctors what the brain looks like. And unlike MRI, the scanner is portable and can be moved right to the baby's bedside.
How does the new baby brain scanner work?
'The new scanner beams harmless rays of red light through bundles of optical fibres onto the baby's head. The fibres arrive via a soft foam helmet that's so comfy the babies often fall asleep while they're wearing it.'
Adam Gibson, medical imaging researcher, University College London

The scanner shines light onto the baby's head via a soft foam helmet.

Image: Adam Gibson

Broadband Version

Meet the experts who developed the scanner and find out how they use it.

Video: Science Museum, UCL Department of Medical Physics and Bioengineering, BLISS - the premature baby charity

As the light travels through the baby's brain, some of it is absorbed. The absorption pattern depends on how the brain is working, how much blood there is and whether it's full of oxygen. The scanner detects this pattern to build up a picture of brain health.
Baby-care doctors are impressed with the new scanner.

'Using this scanner, we can identify which babies are most at risk of getting brain damage. So then we can try to prevent that damage taking place with new treatments.
'So far we've scanned over 25 babies on the neonatal intensive care unit at University College and the results have been very encouraging.'
Topun Austin, neonatal intensive-care doctor, University College London

Topun Austin, neonatal intensive-care doctor, University College London

Every hour, five babies are born prematurely - that's about 45,000 premature births in the UK each year. Premature infants are fragile, so doctors must keep a close eye on their tiny patients.

Image: BLISS - the premature baby charity

'We do a lot of monitoring on these babies - we monitor the heart rate, blood pressure and oxygen levels - but we don't have that many monitors on the brain, which is the most vulnerable part of these little people.'
Topun Austin

Image: BLISS - the premature baby charity

'Brain injury is a major risk to babies born very prematurely and it can lead to disability. This new technology will provide important help towards treatment decisions. This is really exciting and good news for babies and their families.'
Rob Williams, Chief Executive, BLISS - the premature baby charity

Rob Williams, Chief Executive, BLISS - the premature baby charity

Image: BLISS - the premature baby charity

Could the scanner soon be a new arrival at your local neonatal unit? Its inventors still have work to do, but they hope their imaging tool has a bright future.

Image: Adam Gibson

'We need to shrink our scanner to about half the size that it is now. And we also want to make it faster, more portable and accurate so it's as easy as possible for doctors and nurses to use.'
'That'll probably take us another five years, but maybe then we can imagine these things being seen more often in neonatal units in specialist hospitals.'
Adam Gibson

Adam Gibson, medical imaging researcher, University College London

Image: Adam Gibson

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