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Last Updated: Tuesday, 27 December 2005, 23:11 GMT
New scan 'may save babies' lives'
Doll in new scanner
A helmet contains 32 different light sources
Scientists are developing a portable brain scanner which they hope could aid treatment - and possibly save the lives - of premature and newborn babies.

The MONSTIR scanner, developed by University College London, will avoid the need to move critically ill babies to conventional scanning facilities.

This can involve sedation, which carries a degree of risk.

The data produced by the scanner can be used to diagnose and assess conditions such as brain haemorrhages.

It could make an important contribution to the care and treatment of critically ill babies
Dr Adam Gibson

It can also help doctors to decide on the best possible treatment.

The researchers, backed by funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and the Wellcome Trust, are now working on how to reduce the size of the scanner, and to improve its speed of operation.

Two alternatives

Currently, there are two main ways of performing brain scans on small babies.

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can provide data on brain function, but MRI scanners are large and static, and the baby may need to be sedated and wheeled to the scanner for the procedure to be carried out.

The alternative, ultrasound, can be performed at the cot side and is effective at revealing brain anatomy - but cannot show how the brain is actually functioning.

MONSTIR works by using a technique called optical tomography to generate images showing how the brain is working.

Light is passed through the body tissues, and then analysed by computer.

A helmet incorporating 32 light detectors and 32 sources of low-intensity laser light is placed on the baby's head.

The sources produce short flashes and the detectors measure the amount of light that reaches them through the brain and the time the light takes to travel.

Computer analysis

A software package uses this information to build up a 3D image.

This can show which parts of the brain are receiving oxygen, where blood is situated, and evidence of brain damage. The UCL team are also testing whether the technology could be useful in diagnosing and treating breast cancer.

Researcher Dr Adam Gibson said: "The technology we're developing has the potential to produce high-quality images at the cot side and is also cheaper than MRI.

"It could make an important contribution to the care and treatment of critically ill babies."

It is hoped the scanners could be commercially available within a few years.

Henry Scowcroft, of the charity Cancer Research UK, said: "This is exciting work. Finding out what is going on inside the body quickly and non-invasively is an important goal for medical researchers.

"Current technology such as MRI and PET is extremely valuable but also expensive and cumbersome to use.

"Developing a smaller, more mobile imaging machine would be extremely useful."

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