Boas Team Wins $5.9M Grant for Neuroimaging Project

Funds from the NIH BRAIN Initiative will support novel hardware development

By Liz Sheeley

Neuroscience has advanced so that researchers can study how the brain reacts to different stimuli, like pictures or sounds. They have been able to create hardware that can detect electrical signaling and blood flow within the brain to get a better understanding of how we think. And, although these advances have led to important discoveries, all of the research has been done in a contained, unnatural environment.

Functional MRI, or fMRI, can image blood flow in the brain, showing researchers which parts are used when someone is creating a memory, or remembering that memory later. But all of that has to be done with the subject laying inside of an MRI machine—a large, loud piece of equipment.

To bring neuroscience research into everyday life, Professor and Director of the Neurophotonics Center David Boas (BME, ECE) is working to create a portable, wearable brain imaging system and has received a $5.9 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to do so. The award comes from the Brain Research through Advancing Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative.

Over the past 20 plus years, Boas has been developing a wearable brain imaging system called fNIRS (functional near-infrared spectroscopy)—a machine that can measure blood flow within the brain with infrared light. It is a flexible, shower-cap-like device that is strapped to a subject’s head and makes measurements through the skull. When someone thinks, speaks or acts, blood rushes to the part of the brain doing the work, and Boas tracks that rush with light. Unlike other brain imaging techniques like magnetic resonance imaging, fNIRS doesn’t require the subject to be completely still, which means it can be used to study brain activity during surgery and memory creation, and on stroke victims, dementia patients and children with autism.

fMRI was first used to study brain function in the 1990s and has since revolutionized the way we understand the brain. Since then, researchers have been able to expand how fMRI is used to study how the brain reacts to all sorts of stimuli, and recently has expanded to showing subjects movies to see how their brains react when shown different scenarios.

But we still don’t understand how the brain reacts during natural everyday interactions.

The functionality of fNIRS is similar to that of fMRI, in that both measure the blood flow response to brain activity.  To expand the functionality of their wearable fNIRS device, Boas and his team decided to pair it with an EEG system, which directly measures electrical neural activity. Pairing these measurements allows them to compare the EEG and fNIRS data against each other and gain more information about the functioning brain.

Over the past three years, Boas and his team have developed a prototype for the portable, wearable brain imaging system with a small grant they received from the NIH. This new grant that was awarded in September will give them the resources to build and test the combined fNIRS/EEG device.

In addition to the hardware that will sit on the subject’s head, the system will also use eye-tracking glasses to capture what the subject is viewing in the world, allowing researchers to see exactly what triggers the brain to behave and react as it does.

With this new grant, Boas and his team are working with Professors Cronin-Golomb (CAS), Ellis (Sargent), Kiran (Sargent), Somers (CAS) and Yücel (ENG) to perform the studies demonstrating the transition from measuring brain activity in constraint laboratory settings to measuring brain activity in the everyday world. They will then extend to patient populations to explore the impact of stroke, traumatic brain injury, and Parkinson’s disease on the functioning brain.