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Young Epilepsy announces world-first technological breakthrough

Posted in Industry News on 8th Nov 2021

National charity, Young Epilepsy is set to revolutionise the diagnostic experience for children with the condition by introducing the world’s first clinical wearable MEG (Magnetoencephalography) brain scanning system to its Health and Research Centre in Surrey. 

Following an exciting collaboration with experienced MEG researchers, clinicians and engineers from around the world, the team have created a wearable optically pumped magnetometer magnetoencephalography (OPM-MEG)system.  The charity has placed this innovative technology, which is integrated into a magnetically shielded room, at the centre of its new diagnostic suite.

To achieve this the charity worked in partnership with Cerca Magnetics Ltd, Magnetic Shields Ltd, the University of Nottingham, University College London (UCL) Institute of Neurology and the UCL Wellcome Centre for Human Neuroimaging.

Magnetoencephalography (MEG) is an existing diagnostic tool, which measures the changes in magnetic field generated by neuronal activity in the brain. This activity occurs naturally and the whole scan is completely non-invasive. A MEG study is recognised as one of the most advanced methods of recording and evaluating brain function and its use in epilepsy is well established. However, traditional MEG scanners are optimised for adults and are of limited use in children. Moreover, conventional MEG technology requires a child to stay completely still for long periods, or even be sedated during the scan. 

OPM-MEG makes the scan far more accessible for children, especially those with complex health conditions, as it allows them to wear a helmet, move about within the magnetically shielded room and undertake activities whilst the scan happens. The helmet is adaptable to fit a child of any age. In addition, the new scanner offers higher sensitivity and spatial accuracy compared to the current ones.

The development offers clinicians a far better chance of capturing the rich data necessary to inform their decisions on the best possible treatment pathway for children with complex neurological conditions.

Rosemarie Pardington, Director of Integrated Care at Young Epilepsy explained

At Young Epilepsy, we are always mindful that each and every child is different. The way their epilepsy affects them will be unique, and personal to them. Having a facility like the MEG is going to make an absolutely massive difference to the children and their families. The wonderful thing is that clinicians already recognise MEG as a reliable tool on which to base difficult decisions, such as surgery options, due to the richness and the reliability of the data. This  takes it to a wearable form and makes it all a much easier experience for children.”

Mark Devlin, Chief Executive as Young Epilepsy said: “Children and young people inform everything that we do at Young Epilepsy and the development of the MEG is no different – they have been involved in the design of the room itself and of the helmet, as well as helping us to understand how we can keep children calm and entertained, through the diagnostic experience. 

“On a personal level, I’m really excited to see how this technology can transform their diagnostic experience for children and their families. It is really stressful going through tests – as a child or as a parent – and we want to make this technology as child friendly as possible and to really take much of the stress out of the experience.”

15 year old Samuel is a pupil at the Young Epilepsy St Piers College in Lingfield. He is, in many ways, is a typical teenager, who loves doing sports, watching TV and spending time hiding in his bedroom. He was first diagnosed with epilepsy when he turned four years old. 

His mum, Tracy Benning, described the traumatic process of getting the diagnosis: “Eventually, the epilepsy diagnosis was confirmed by an EEG on Sam’s fourth birthday and I have to say our first EEG was the most horrific experience. At that point Samuel was very unsettled in his behaviour, so in order to get him to sit with wires on his head without moving, we both had to keep pinning him down on my lap. We could only last for twenty minutes instead of an hour and after that we were simply told that he’s got epilepsy – ‘don’t ever leave him alone, don’t go swimming, don’t do this, don’t do that’- it was brutal.

Currently, even the best centres that offer epilepsy testing are still hospital environments, where the patient has to stay still on a hospital bed and have electrodes attached directly to their head and Tracy welcomed the change that the new MEG will bring to the process: “With the new MEG it is going to be more of a family friendly environment, where you can bring your favourite toys and your siblings along. For example, Sam’s older brother really struggled with understanding at the beginning – it was a scary process for him also. To make it more normal will be a huge help for families like ours.

A new helmet would also be fantastic for someone like Sam, as he is already used to wearing a protective hat, so it won’t feel too different to him.  He loves to move around and having the freedom to do so could also make a big difference to the quality of the scan. Knowledge is power, so if this technology is able to pick up more information about our child’s condition, then it can really help us understand it more and as a parent you want to understand more, so that you can do more to help.

Conventional MEG recordings are made inside a magnetically shielded room, which suppresses environmental magnetic noise. Rooms built for current MEG systems are very large and extremely costly, as they rely on multiple layers of expensive metal alloy for the shielding. In addition, conventional MEG systems rely on magnetic field detectors which must be cooled to -269°C in order to operate. The cooling process, which involves bathing the sensors in liquid helium, is extremely costly and is what makes conventional scanners so cumbersome.

OPM-MEG uses a different type of sensor – optically pumped magnetometers (OPMs), which don’t need cooling to work. In the new system the patient wears a comfortable helmet with sensors attached, meaning that the sensors are closer to the scalp. The helmet can be made to fit anyone, and crucially patients can move during the scan.

The OPM-MEG system also uses a new type of magnetically shielded room – the light Mu-Room developed by the project partnership and built by UK company, Magnetic Shields Ltd. The newly created room at Young Epilepsy is a fraction of the weight of the existing MEG rooms and doesn’t carry the expense of the traditional magnetically shielded rooms. This new development, coupled with the new sensors, will eventually offer a feasible, and affordable option for many hospitals.

The new technology is part of the newly constructed Diagnostic Suite that will offer world leading clinical neuroimaging technology in a comfortable and seamless environment for children and their families. 

The Neville Childhood Epilepsy Centre in Lingfield, offers a unique range of health services, including an assessment and rehabilitation unit, diagnostic services and other outpatient clinics.  All of these specialising in providing comprehensive health services for children and young people with epilepsy in a non-hospital setting. With this in mind, the new Diagnostic Suite has been specially designed to have intuitive, human and homely aesthetics – to welcome and reassure patients and their families. Alongside the OPM-MEG room, the suite includes EEG and telemetry rooms, a family room and a sensory garden, designed by a Chelsea Flower show 2019 Gold Medal winner, Alistair Bayford. 

Young Epilepsy will commence clinical evaluation of this exciting new technology in October 2021 and the charity hopes to start accepting routine clinical referrals in 2022.

The new facilities will also be available for medical scientists, Ph.D. students and other researchers keen to explore the applications of this technology beyond childhood epilepsy, such as other areas of medicine and sports science.