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Brain Mapping Technologies

Magnetic signals produced by electrical currents in the brain can be used to map brain processes and help in the diagnosis and treatment of disease. Traditionally, medical researchers have been limited to large and costly instrumentation to measure these signals. NIST’s miniature sensor technology now provides companies with the opportunity to build smaller, inexpensive sensors to accelerate our understanding of the human brain.

atom-based magnetic sensor
Credit: Knappe/NIST
NIST's atom-based magnetic sensor, about the size of a sugar cube, can measure human brain activity. Inside the sensor head is a container of 100 billion rubidium atoms (not seen), packaged with micro-optics (a prism and a lens are visible in the center cutout). The light from a low-power infrared laser interacts with the atoms and is transmitted through the grey fiber-optic cable to register the magnetic field strength. The black and white wires are electrical connections.

Magnetoencephalography (MEG) is a noninvasive procedure that measures the magnetic fields produced by electrical activity in the brain. Currently, MEG relies on large superconducting detector arrays mounted in heavy helmet-shaped flasks containing cryogenic coolants. A sensor developed by NIST now makes it possible for companies to create smaller, cheaper technologies for MEG.

The chip-scale NIST magnetometer (a sensor that measures magnetic forces) is about the size of a sugar cube. The small sensor operates at room temperature, so it may be used in new lightweight and flexible MEG helmets. Because of its simple design, the sensor should also be less expensive to mass produce than typical magnetometers, which are larger and more difficult to manufacture.

NIST originally patented the chip-scale magnetometer in 2004 and has been improving the device since. Today, companies are using the technology for a range of applications that require sensitive detection of magnetic fields, and in which size and weight are at a premium. For example, these low-power, lightweight sensors can help detect explosives in the field, and provide new opportunities for space science using the new generation of low-cost CubeSats.