Our Future Living with Personal Brain Scanners

Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition - July 2024

At the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition 2024

Try on a brain scanner
child wearing consumer brain scanner with mother alongside.

We'll have a number of consumer devices you can try on for free, and see what score you get on the app! Don't forget to take a picture with the brain scanners on, in our instagram corner.

See blood pulsing in brain
Dr Horia Maior laughing with a participant wearing a scientific brain scanner, who is making a funny face while thinking harder.

We'll have our scientific brain scanner for some people to test - a 3D heatmap will show the blood pulsing in the brain.

Design your best day
View of a sticky board showing activities people might do in the day that uses mental effort to achieve.

We want to understand how people would plan a day to be better for their brain - here's a chance for you to decide!

Photographs taken by Emma Ford at the Festival of Science and Curiosity 2024 in Nottingham.

From inventing the MRI, to studying brains in our homes

The University of Nottingham has a long history with brain scanners. "50 years ago, what started as experiments in the physics department looking at tiny samples, developed into taking the first human images of a hand and then the whole body," explains Professor Bowtell. "Today MRI scanners are commonplace in many hospitals, and we estimate that there are over 60 million, if not many more, MRI scans performed annually around the world – all helping clinicians and researchers to diagnose and treat a plethora of different conditions and diseases in people of all ages." But this isn't the only area of development. An innovative research team led by Professor Matt Brookes (Physics with Medical Physics, 2002; PhD, 2005) later developed the world's first wearable magnetoencephalography (MEG) system, which could be a game-changer for researchers both as a neuroscientific and diagnostic tool. The university also has a long history of using brain scanners for furthering scientific knowledge in areas such as psychology and mental health. One project, for example, has studied how people of different ages drive cars to understand more about brain aging.

These days, as brain scanners have got easier to produce, and cheaper to buy, we can bring them into our homes. This becomes a Human-Computer Interaction research problem - a key specialism at the University of Nottingham. Our Brain Data Team is studying how people will come to live with brain scanners and use them to enhance their own lives and wellbeing.

Find out more: MRI Find out more: Portable MEG Find out more: Brain Aging

Techniques for Brain Scanning

Approaches to scanning the brain tend to involve one or more of the following techniques. Sometimes radioactive liquids are also introduced into the body before the scan, to see where it flows.

Magnetism
image showing scan of the human head from an MRI

MRI and MEG detect magnetic changes in your brain. An MRI creates a strong magnetic field around your head, and watches to see how different types of cells respond. MEG (Magnetoencephalography), instead, tries to be super sensitive to the tiny magnetic fields that the cells in the brain create by themselves.

Electricity
Image showing a man with EEG sensors all over his head and face

Copyright: Petter Kallioinen

EEG (Electroencephalography) detects electrical activity in the brain. As different parts of the brain are activated, the brain cells create electrical pulses at different frequencies. Some frequencies imply focus and attention, and others imply relaxation and meditation.

Light
Image showing heatmap of activity in the front of the brain.

fNIRS (functional Near Infrared Spectroscopy) shines near infrared light into the head, and observes how much reflects back. At just the right frequency of light, this can be used to count how many blood cells in the brain contain oxygen (needed when that part of the brain is working hard) and how many have had their oxygen used.

There are many other types of brain scanner that exist, including CT Scans, DOT, and PET. Each approach helps us to understand the brain in a different way.

But which ones can we take home?

Studying the Future

Personal Brain scanners now are at the point that smart watches were in the year 2000. Early Stages. Right now, scientifically, research aims to improve how accurately it can classify changes in cognitive activity, using advanced scientific brain scanners in carefully controlled labs. Research aims to move into scientific accuracy in real world environments, but that's more of a machine learning problem now. Yet these consumer devices, with AI built in, have suddenly arrived on the market, and we expect a rapid expansion in the number of devices available to have in our homes.

Timeline showing the progress of cognitive activity tracking compared to physical activity tracking. Cognitive activity tracking is currently where physical activity tracking was in around 2005.

We expect that people will show the same excitement for tracking themselves, as many people do now with exercise tracking. Early adopters are likely to be e.g. neurodivergent people wanting to understand more about themselves, and trying to see if they can e.g. train themselves to keep focused attention for longer. Another group of people will be the hyper-organised types that want to better organise their time and energy to be more productive. Then we expect wider adoption will occur as these technologies get built into devices that we are already happy to wear on our head (VR goggles, and headphones are the early examples). Finally, we expect to see other wearables like smart watches continue to improve at detecting indicators of cognitive changes, as they detect stress indicators.

But how do we feel about this kind of technology?

We need to ask the big questions now.

At Work/School

Will you let your teacher, or boss at work, track your brain data?

Can be get work done better if we do a mental workout?

Can devices help us to avoid making mistakes?

Brain/Mental Health

Could these devices help manage ADHD and improve focus?

Could they help us track and avoid cognitive decline?

Can we manage and reduce stress in our lives?

Our Research

Studying whether brain scanners can help us avoid mistakes

About the Brain Team Contact us

Read some of our research papers

More can be found on Dr Max L. Wilson's Google Scholar page, including research into machine learning of brain data, brain-controlled movies, VR, robots, and studying cognitive decline.

Brains at Work

Research has been focused on how technology will become more aware of employees and adapt to help them do their jobs, or remind them when to take a break. We've been studying people in office and factory work to understand how people will respond.

image of research paper entitled Measuring Mental Workload Variations in Office Work Tasks using fNIRS

image of research paper entitled Physical indicators of task demand, fatigue, and cognition in future digital manufacturing environments.

Brain Tracking

Research has been focused on how technology will become more aware of employees and adapt to help them do their jobs, or remind them when to take a break. We've been studying people in office and factory work to understand how people will respond.

image of reserach paper entitled Lived Experiences of Mental Workload in Everyday Life.

image of research paper entitled When High Mental Workload is Good and Low Mental Workload is Bad.

NeuroEthics

Research has been focused on how technology will become more aware of employees and adapt to help them do their jobs, or remind them when to take a break. We've been studying people in office and factory work to understand how people will respond.

image of research paper entitled Undesrtanding the Ethical Concerns for Neurotechnology in the Future of Work.

image of research paper entitled Ethical Concerns and Perceptions of Consumer Neurotechnology from Lived Experiences of Mental Workload Tracking.

Research Grants

Our work is primarily funded by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), through the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). Further funding has been received from the European Commission. The research has been performed as part of larger grants (with a wider remit) totalling £10M, as well as by institutional support for Science PhD studentships awarded to the University of Nottingham.

Logo for Digitop research project. Logo for Horizon Centre for Doctoral Training Logo for Connected Everything 2 Network grant
Logo for UKRI Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council

Take Part

Coming Soon