McKelvey School of Engineering School of Medicine

Wearable, light-based brain-imaging tech to be commercialized with aid of NIH grant

Wearable brain-imaging tech aims to reveal how the brain works in natural, realistic situations. Washington University faculty members (from left) Joseph P. Culver, (holding a piece of a prototype imaging device), Jason Trobaugh and Ed Richter, along with Adam Eggebrecht, have received a grant from the NIH to develop and commercialize a brain-imaging cap that uses LED light to gauge brain activity. (Photo: Elizabethe Holland Durando/School of Medicine)

Figuring out what’s going on inside people’s heads typically requires huge, expensive equipment and volunteers willing to spend hours performing repetitive tasks while lying inside a narrow metal tube. Researchers at Washington University in St. Louis are working on an alternative. They are developing a cap that can be worn while moving around normally that will generate, using the power of light, high-resolution images of the brain in action. The project is supported by a Small Business Technology Transfer grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

“Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) is the gold standard for imaging brain function, but fMRI is very loud and very constraining, and that limits what you can do,” said Joseph P. Culver, PhD, the Sherwood Moore Professor of Radiology at the School of Medicine’s Mallinckrodt Institute of Radiology (MIR) and the primary inventor of the technology. “Wearable brain-imaging tech would allow us to study how brain areas work together to solve specific tasks and govern behavior under naturalistic conditions.”

Culver started designing the first diffuse optical tomography (HD-DOT) instrument for imaging the brain in 2005. The technique uses LED sources that beam in infrared light from outside the head, paired with detectors that measure the light coming back out. The signals collected by each source-detector pair contain information about local brain blood flow. By placing many sources and detectors in an interlaced high-density array all around the head, the researchers can map blood dynamics — a proxy for brain activity — all over the brain. Recently, Culver and colleagues demonstrated that they could use an HD-DOT cap to detect brain signals and then decode them to figure out what a person sees.

Small Business Technology Transfer grants are designed to help small businesses bring academic innovations to market in collaboration with research institutions. This grant was awarded to EsperImage, a Washington University startup founded by Culver along with Adam Eggebrecht, PhD, an associate professor of radiology at MIR, and Jason Trobaugh, DSc and Ed Richter, both professors of practice in electrical and systems engineering at the McKelvey School of Engineering. The four have worked together on HD-DOT technology for more than a decade.

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