Using Light Intead Of Radio Waves Makes For A More Versatile Brain Scanner

Nov 14, 2016

Ted Huppert's research assistant, Ashley Whiteman, performs a task on her phone while wearing the fNIRS headgear. A graph showing brain activity is projected behind her at Pitt's Brain Day event on Friday, November 4, 2016.
Credit Liz Reid / 90.5 WESA

Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh are using light to see inside the brains of subjects in ways traditional static imaging scanners cannot.

Functional near infrared spectroscopy, or NIRS, is portable and can measure brain activity while subjects are moving around. It can also be used in remote situations when people can’t get to an MRI scanner, which requires patients lie down and remain very still to get a usable image.

“I have a number of colleagues that are using this technology to bring to rural India, to look at child development and brain imaging in these type of rural settings,” said Ted Huppert, assistant professor in the Department of Radiology. “We’ve worked on developing things for the backs of ambulances and stuff like that.”

Huppert said a study looking at environmental factors affecting brain development in young children is about to get underway. The multi-year study will use the specialized headgear to understand how babies’ brains develop to understand concepts like shape or color, for example.

“You can’t ask an infant, do you see a difference? But we know that if I show them a red ball versus a blue ball, their brain doesn’t show a difference,” he said.

This type of technology can also be used to understand the brains of other people who are non-verbal or potentially just uncomfortable answering a researcher’s questions, such as some autistic children.

Ted Huppert (right) explains the graph demonstrating increased blood flow to Whiteman's brain as she performs a cognitive task on her phone at Pitt's Brain Day event on Friday, November 4, 2016.
Credit Liz Reid / 90.5 WESA

“Looking at social perception and how children with autism interact with a parent versus a stranger, in terms of how they’re able to relate to each other in a face-to-face scenario,” Huppert said.

NIRS technology is also far less expensive than MRI machines, which can cost anywhere from $150,000 to $3 million.

Huppert said it costs researchers about $600/hour to use a traditional scanner at UPMC. By contrast, the NIRS scanners cost about $40,000-60,000 to build and can easily be repaired if something breaks.

Huppert said his department doesn’t charge researchers to use NIRS, though they do get some chunk of the grant funding the research. He said other universities charge about $50/hour for the use of NIRS technology.