The Future of Brain Imaging

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Clare Elwell is a professor of medical physics and director of the Near-Infrared Spectroscopy Group and Biomedical Optics Research Laboratory at University College London. Her current research combines physics and engineering to develop novel optical systems for monitoring and imaging the brain. Clare currently leads the Brain Imaging for Global HealTh (BRIGHT) research project, investigating the impact of malnutrition on early infant brain development.

In this episode of the Create the Future podcast, we speak with Clare about the engineering that underpins functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS)—notably the 2019 QEPrize-winning innovation, LED lighting. We discuss the benefits of portable fNIRS equipment, hear why multidisciplinary teams are essential for innovation, and discover why Clare’s research project in The Gambia was the first study of infant brains in Africa.

Episode highlights

  • “Our technique shines light on the blood to enable us to measure the colour of that blood. Then we can work out how much oxygen is in the blood and then where the oxygen is in the brain […] we use near infrared light and that's because bone is transparent to that light, which means the light will pass nicely through the skull and actually get to the brain and the blood that we're interested in.”
  • “We now use LEDs in a range of different wavelengths in the near-infrared. It's actually the type of light that would come out of your TV remote control. It's harmless, it's low energy, so it's not going to cause any damage to the tissue.”
  • “The idea of spectroscopy, measuring the colour of something, has obviously been around for a long time. But it was really our team back in back in the 1990s that really started to understand that this was a very safe technology to use on infants, but also that it was providing really invaluable information about just how the brain was using oxygen.”
  • “We're moving through this real game changing period of optics because we're all walking around with cameras on our phone. Detectors became much more available and much less expensive. And that's true with LEDs as well. I can remember when it was highly unusual to get a blue LED, all the LEDs were red. So all of those other areas have fed into the availability of hardware. So that side of it has been really, you know, tagging onto all of those engineering innovations.”
  • “We want to measure these infants in the most naturalistic way that we can […] So we've worked really hard on developing materials that are very lightweight, bringing in designs that mean that their headgear is very well fitted and very lightweight, but mostly that it's movable with the infant.”
  • “You have to get the technology right. We have to understand the end user and understand the context in which our technology is being used. I think that's a really good lesson for all engineering.”
  • “Working cross-discipline, that's really what I've loved and what's kept me in this discipline. I'm working with psychologists, clinicians, sports scientists, engineers, mathematicians, biochemists, physiologists… we're becoming less discipline specific because we're looking at what problems do we need to solve, rather than what discipline do we need to bring to this. I think that's something that really excites me about science and engineering.”
  • “I was very lucky, I was sponsored to go to an event called The London International Youth Science Forum when I was 17 […] I was just thrown into this environment and I signed up to anything that had medical in the title. That brought me to a visit to the Royal Marsden Hospital where I was learning all about a topic I'd never heard of before called Medical Physics. I stood in front of a medical physicist who explained how an imaging system worked and in that moment, I knew that's what I wanted to do.”
  • "We literally packed up one of our systems, flew out to The Gambia, drove out to the field station, and were able to set up the system within two hours to do our first study. That turned out to be the first ever brain imaging of infants in Africa.”
  • “This work has just massively reignited my excitement about the capabilities of technology. And I think a lot of it is in communication actually. It’s important to be open to listen to what other experts in other disciplines have got to contribute.”
  • “I think that if you're not prepared to keep learning, you're probably in the wrong job. And if you feel that you can go into a situation and know everything, that's a pretty dangerous territory.”
  • “I think there are really serious concerns about the pandemic actually overloading female academics, because they seem to have just assumed more responsibility […] We're all striving for equality in the workplace but we need men and women to make this change together.”

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