The University of Birmingham in the UK has developed a new sensor called Optically Pumped Magnetometer (OPM) that can measure weak magnetic signals in the brain.

A team of scientists led by physicist Dr Anna Kowalczyk from the Quantum Gases group at the School of Physics and Astronomy and the Neuronal Oscillation group at the School of Psychology designed the sensor.

Used in MEG labs, these sensors make use of polarised light to detect changes in the orientation of the spin of atoms on being exposed to a magnetic field.

The new sensor can potentially aid in the understanding of connectivity in the brain as well as to detect signs of traumatic brain injury, dementia and schizophrenia.

Unlike EEG that detects electrical signals, magnetic signals in the brain are measured using magnetoencephalography (MEG) and are easier to localise.

Setting itself apart from the commercially available sensors, the new sensor can distinguish magnetic signals from background magnetic noise.

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Kowalczyk said: “Existing MEG sensors need to be at a constant, cool temperature and this requires a bulky helium-cooling system, which means they have to be arranged in a rigid helmet that will not fit every head size and shape.

“They also require a zero-magnetic field environment to pick up the brain signals. The testing demonstrated that our stand-alone sensor does not require these conditions.”

Recently, the University of Birmingham’s Centre for Human Brain Health team was awarded Partnership Resource Funding from the UK Quantum Technology Hub Sensors and Timing to aid the further development of new OPM sensors.

A patent application for the new sensor’s design and use in medical diagnostic equipment has been filed by the University of Birmingham Enterprise.