The OPM System at the Institute for Human Neuroscience

 

​​​​​At Boys Town National Research Hospital, the emphasis has and continues to be providing extraordinary care for children and their families. On December 15th, Boys Town took another large step toward that aim.

Tony Wilson, Ph.D., the director of the Institute for Human Neuroscience at Boys Town, and his team of renowned scientists became the second of only two facilities in the world to install a high-resolution Cerca® OPM-MEG (optically-pumped magnetometer – magnetoencephalogram) system. The OPM-MEG (or OPM) system is the most up to date MEG technology in the world, and the team at the Institute for Human Neuroscience are well equipped to capitalize on this opportunity. Not only are they the world’s leading institute for published research utilizing MEG technology, but they are also the leading research entity in MEG study funding in the United States, and the only institute in the world to house two next-generation MEG systems. It is, therefore, not surprising that the Institute was chosen from among many applicants from across the country to receive a high-end instrumentation grant (S10OD032468) from the National Institute of Health to fund this most recent technology, revolutionizing child and adolescent brain research.

OPM = A Wearable MEG Scanner

OPM (optically pumped magnetometry) is the first wearable MEG device that will allow researchers to study the brain activity of children from birth to 5 years old. The OPM system consists of a series of Lego-sized sensors attached to a helmet that can be worn by infants and toddlers, allowing them to move around and interact with their environment while scientists directly record their brain activity in real-time. The latest generation of high-resolution OPM has 128 channels, which provide enough brain coverage to look in-depth at where and how brain activity is generated in our youngest children. Similar technology is used in the next-generation MEG systems with the exception that traditional MEG sensors need to be cryogenically cooled, which means the sensors are fixed and cannot be worn on the head, limiting participant movement during scanning.

Upcoming OPM Studies

The first study Boys Town plans to conduct will be looking at infants in the first couple of months of life. Studies have been done on how brain structure changes during this time, but how that affects brain function has been beyond study until now. “We'll be able to observe the reactions within their brains as they are literally gaining awareness of the world," said Dr. Wilson, the Director of the Institute for Human Neuroscience and principal investigator of the Dynamic Imaging of Cognition and Neuromodulation (DICoN) laboratory. “We will be wat​ching as they gain awareness of their parents and as they begin processing touch and language for the first time.

Max Kurz, Ph.D., principal investigator of the Physiology of Walking & Engineering Rehabilitation (PoWER) laboratory within Institute, plans to study how small children learn to control motor behavior and how the brains of young children with cerebral palsy develop differently than typically developing children. Children with cerebral palsy usually do not get formally diagnosed until they miss multiple motor milestones through development. These types of OPM studies will enable scientists to see and predict these missed milestones much earlier, and eventually use novel therapeutic interventions to prevent these milestones from being missed.

The Future of OPM

Currently, the OPM is only authorized for research use. However, following FDA approval, the OPM will open medical avenues that have been previously unavailable. For example, MEG is currently approved for use on patients with epilepsy to precisely map areas of seizure origin prior to surgery. Unfortunately, many infants and toddlers with epilepsy require surgery before they are old enough to lie still in a traditional MEG scanner. Yet, with wearable OPM technology, infants and toddlers will now be able to have the location of their epilepsy precisely and noninvasively mapped prior to surgery, which means that surgeons will have a much clearer picture of where to perform the procedure than ever before. This is just one of the many clinical applications for OPM that will expand treatment for very young patients.​

A Quantum Leap in Scanning

The concept for the OPM system was conceived at the University of Nottingham, England in the Nobel-Prize-winning Sir Peter Mansfield Imaging Center. Cerca Magnetics, a company formed by University of Nottingham scientists, was developed in 2020 to facilitate the development and manufacturing of the first wearable​​ human OPM system.

The Cerca team worked in collaboration with QuSpin in the United States, to develop and fabricate the modern sensors that are used in Cerca OPM systems. Major benefits of QuSpin sensors are their small size, lightweight, and portability, which allows researchers to configure custom helmets for all ages that allow for placement of the sensors directly on the scalp.

Cerca researchers also worked with Magnetic Shields Limited in England, to build cutting-edge magnetically-shielded environment. These custom environments provide an ideal setting allowing scientists to take advantage of the sensitivity of OPM sensors without magnetic interference from the surrounding environment such as nearby traffic or other machinery. The collaboration between Cerca, QuSpin, the University of Nottingham, and Magnetic Shields Limited have led to the creation of the most sensitive, highest-density O​PM systems currently available in the world.

​The only other high-resolution OPM-MEG system aside from Boys Town is housed at the University of Nottingham, England.

Watch the OPM System in Action!