New MRI ‘Football’ Helmet Yields Clearer Images Of Brain
GAINESVILLE—At the University of Florida, football players aren’t the only ones wearing helmets these days. Off the field, UF researchers have developed specialized headgear to explore the body’s ultimate frontier–the brain.
Scientists modified a football helmet, covering it in a series of metallic strips or “coils.” The coils act as an antenna, which receives powerful radio signals enabling researchers to obtain some of the highest quality magnetic resonance images of the brain ever seen.
MRI of the brain is used for many purposes, from determining which area has been damaged by a stroke to pinpointing a tumor’s location.
In MRI systems, radio signals and a large magnet are used to create three-dimensional pictures of soft tissue in the body. Hydrogen atoms in a patient’s cells are stimulated by bursts of these powerful signals and emit their own signals, which a computer detects, analyzes and displays as an image on a video screen.
When undergoing a traditional magnetic resonance scan, the patient is exposed to the signals while lying inside a large hollow, magnetized chamber. The image focuses not only on the main part of the brain (the cortex), but also on its base and the cervical spine. But when the patient wears the helmet inside the chamber, signals are focused solely on the cortex. The result is a far more precise and detailed image.
“Conventional coils are quite a bit larger. Because they image such an extensive area, from the brain down to the shoulders, they compromise performance,” said Jeffrey Fitzsimmons, associate professor of radiology at UF’s College of Medicine. “You might call the helmet a customized antenna designed to pick up signals from the brain.”
In recent years, scientists have discovered that the brain draws oxygen from the blood to perform an activity–anything from reacting to a visual stimulus to tapping two fingers together. This change can be detected by magnetic resonance imaging.
“When the blood becomes deoxygenated, it causes the magnetic field to change very slightly and we can detect that effect,” said Fitzsimmons, who holds a joint appointment at the Gainesville Veterans Affairs Medical Center.
Radiologists can create an image of the brain while a patient is in a resting state and can obtain additional images when the brain is stimulated. When the two images are compared, the contrast enables researchers to pinpoint the area of the brain responsible for that particular action.
For now, the helmet coil is being used primarily for research to understand how the brain functions. But in the future, Fitzsimmons said, it might benefit patients more directly.
For example, if a person has an operable brain tumor, surgeons can use the technology to determine exactly which areas of the brain are still functional before removing the tumor. That way, as much healthy brain tissue as possible will be left intact.
In other instances, it might someday be possible to use the higher-quality images to help pinpoint the origin of epileptic seizures.
“There are a lot of other places this could be used. It’s such a new technology that it hasn’t been developed for clinical use yet,” Fitzsimmons said. “But it’s an incredible tool.”
- Vicki Fooks