For individuals with memory or speech disorders, or traumatic brain injury, determining the debilitated areas of the brain can be expensive and invasive. Tristan Tayag and Steve Weis, professors of engineering, and their student-research team have been tasked with creating an alternative non-invasive method of measuring brain waves. Their challenge is to find a solution that is less costly, thereby increasing access to healthcare professionals and researchers around the globe.
One existing approach is to measure brain waves (neuroimaging) through a process known as magnetoencephalography. This process uses a large machine that contains liquid helium at about 4 degrees Kelvin to ensure the device is sensitive enough to capture signals from an individual’s natural magnetic field (biomagnetism) surrounding their brain.
“The magnetic fields around our heads are very weak, so this measuring method must also occur in a room that is shielded from the Earth’s magnetic field,” Tayag said. “Think about the axons in our brain as wires: Wires carry currents of electricity through them from one place to another in the same way our brains’ axons fire when we are thinking. Magnetoencephalography involves about 300 various sensors around the brain that identify activity from our brain activity when exposed to various stimuli.”
For example, a patient may be told to click a button every time they see a picture of a dog during the procedure to stimulate a particular aspect of the brain for observation.
Although this process is useful, magnetoencephalography machines are expensive, costing about $3 million initially and roughly $200,000 in annual upkeep. The high cost inhibits many hospitals and research institutions’ opportunity from owning the MEG machine, and there are only about 100 in existence across the world that are dedicated to neuroimaging.
The TCU research team is under contract with UHV Technologies in Fort Worth, to leverage advanced telecom technology to create an alternative device that is smaller and less expensive. Initially the team is gathering data and preliminary research to develop a prototype, which will provide the foundation to write a larger research grant.
“What we are trying to do is make a sensor that is just as powerful, using technology that UHV has in addition to optics to make this sensitive sensor that does not have to be cooled with liquid helium,” Tayag said. “Ideally these sensors would be in every hospital someday.”
Recent graduate Lauren Getz ’17 examined initial data for this project through her senior honors research project. Now, two engineering students will begin the next steps.
“Working with Dr. Tayag and UHV Technologies this summer has offered me an amazing opportunity to not only grow and develop as an engineer, but also to work on the cutting edge of some really unique technology,” Ben Spitters, sophomore engineering student said. “While working with such newly developed methods and materials has presented a few roadblocks, we have been fortunate to find ways to navigate through them. All around working in the applied photonics lab has been a great experience and it will enable me to be far more prepared for the future than I would have been otherwise.”
“This research allows me to develop lab skills and gain valuable work experience that will help when applying for future jobs,” Ben Krause, junior engineering student said. “Working with our professors in the lab is a great opportunity to learn from someone with years of experience as an engineer.”