Brain-scanning backpack brings neuroscience into the real world

This mobile brain-monitoring device includes a wand and backpack that works in conjunction with a neural implant. It can also be paired with virtual reality goggles.

Topalovic et al./Neuron

Call it neuroscience on the go. Scientists have developed a backpack that tracks and stimulates brain activity as people go about their daily lives. The advance could allow researchers to get a sense of how the brain works outside of a laboratory—and how to monitor diseases such as Parkinson’s and post-traumatic stress disorder in real-world settings.

The technology is “an inspiring demonstration of what’s possible” with portable neuroscience equipment, says Timothy Spellman, a neurobiologist at Weill Cornell Medicine who was not involved with the work. The backpack and its vast suite of tools, he says, could broaden the landscape for neuroscience research to study the brain while the body is in motion.

Typically, when scientists want to scan the brain, they need a lot of room—and a lot of money. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanners, which detect activity in various regions of the brain, are about the size of a pickup truck and can cost more than $1 million. And patients must stay still in the machine for about 1 hour to ensure a clear, readable scan.

Approaches like transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) that zap the brain—often to treat severe depression—are also not portable; patients must sit still and upright in a lab for about 30 minutes while a large coil delivers magnetic pulses through their scalp to electrically activate neurons.

Searching for a better way, researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), have developed what they call the mobile deep brain recording and stimulation platform.

Here’s how it works: A wand snakes up out of a 4-kilogram backpack to rest near the top of the patient’s scalp. There, the wand can communicate with a neural implant that lies deep in the brain. Meanwhile, the backpack is filled with monitors—a setup that allows for real-time data collection from the implant. At the same time, depending on the experiment, the participant can wear additional gear for measuring brain and body activities, including a scalp electroencephalography cap with electrodes that monitor surface brain activity, a pair of virtual reality goggles that track eye movement, and other devices that track heart and breathing rates. All of this information can then be synchronized with signals from the implant.

“The beauty of this is that you have many streams of data that are coming in simultaneously,” says study author Zahra Aghajan, a UCLA neurophysicist.

In lab testing, the team was able to show that the backpack records activity and stimulates various brain regions without requiring people to stay still. It was also able to collect the same data as an fMRI machine and stimulate the brain in a way similar to TMS, the team reports this week in Neuron.

Not being tied to a lab setting could enable scientists to study how the brain functions while people are in motion and interacting with others, rather than lying still inside an fMRI machine, the researchers say.

There’s a catch, however: Only patients who have neural implants can use the device. About 150,000 people worldwide have such implants, which doctors use to treat and monitor a wide range of conditions including Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

The team has released the backpack’s software and blueprints for all scientists to use, says study author Uros Topalovic, a Ph.D. student at UCLA. The hope, he says, is that other researchers can use the technology to study neurological conditions of all kinds without the constraints of a lab or hospital bed.

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