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Alzheimer’s could be spotted early with new Nottingham brain scanner

A new brain scanner that could help detect early signs of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease has been developed by Nottingham experts.

Helped along by £2m in funding from the Government, Cerca Magnetics has developed a brain scanner capable of detecting brain function and activity ten times more accurately than some current devices.

Cerca Magnetics, off Castle Bridge Road, was first established as a start-up by University of Nottingham academics and has put together a system of sensors and software to monitor brain function in a unique way.

Science minister Andrew Griffith speaks with professor of physics Matt Brookes as they analyse brain data

For the scanner to work, patients must wear a sensor-covered helmet and sit inside a giant chamber that isolates “tiny” magnetic fields produced by the brain from the outside world.

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Government science minister Andrew Griffith visited Cerca Magnetics on Monday, February 5, to see how the new scanner works.

Explaining the process, physics professor Matt Brookes told the Local Democracy Reporting Service: “This is a new type of brain scanner.

“Conventional scanners like MRI typically make images of what our brains look like, and that is really good if you have got a lump, bump or tumour, or something that should not be there.

“But actually, in a lot of neurological and psychiatric diseases, it is not brain structure that goes wrong it is brain functions and what our brains do.

“This machine can uniquely measure brain function.

“Nottingham has a huge history in MRI and that is still ongoing, hopefully in the next two years installing a hugely powerful MRI scanner, and this hopefully compliments that.

“So whereas the MRI can look in huge detail at brain structure, this is capturing the electrical function of the brain to go with that structure.”

According to the company’s chief executive, David Woolger, the brain scanner utilises what is called ‘quantum’ technology.

Inside the helmet are sensors containing rubidium atoms, which are used to measure the very small magnetic fields generated when activity happens in assemblies of neurons in the brain.

The chamber removes all other magnetic fields, allowing activity to be more accurately detected in the brain.

Mr Woolger says even a compass would fail to work correctly in the chamber.

Quantum in the context of the scanner means individual atoms are manipulated so that what is seemingly invisible can be made visible and measured in the real world.

Nikos Evangelou, a clinical professor of neurology at the University of Nottingham, who is based at the Queens Medical Centre, added: “The question is: How can we identify these diseases possibly at the very early stages?

“By detecting early we can treat early and treat more successfully. This funding lets us see how much we can use this novel technology in detecting the early stages of dementia.

“Everybody who goes to the hospital with problems with memory will have a structural scan, we call it a CT scan or an MRI, but that really looks at the volume of the brain.

“But by the time the brain starts shrinking it is probably too late in dementia, so what we need to do is start with the function of the brain.

“So far we have had some technologies like brain wave recording, EEG [electroencephalogram], but they are not specific and they are not focal enough.

“They are relatively primitive. This is promising in detecting high quality data from the function of the brain.”

The project at Cerca Magnetics is just one of many funded by the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology.

In total £45m is being awarded to numerous projects in the quantum technology sector.

Science minister Mr Griffith said: “Today it has been so exciting to see the potential and the ability to much more easily scan what is going on inside our brains as we think about something, the really big challenges we have got in society, dementia is one that the Government has spent a lot of time on.

“This technology could be a key that unlocks our understanding of that and our ability to diagnose it early and to treat people well.”

•  Mum-of-two collapsed and died of haemorrhage after waiting at Nottingham QMC A&E

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