Beckman Research Goes to Hollywood

An optical imaging technique developed in the Cognitive Neuroimaging Laboratory at the Beckman Institute was recently featured on Black Box, a new TV show on ABC that follows the life of a neurologist who diagnoses rare brain conditions.

There’s nothing quite like seeing something you’ve made on national television.

Kathy Low, a research scientist in the Cognitive Neuroimaging Laboratory at Beckman, was excited when she saw an EROS helmet she created on episodes 3 and 4 of Black Box. The helmet is part of the equipment the lab uses to conduct optical imaging through a technique called EROS, which was developed in the lab of Beckman researchers Monica Fabiani and Gabriele Gratton.

EROS, or event-related optical signal, uses infrared light through optical fibers to measure activity in the brain, based on changes in the scattering and absorption of light by active neurons. With this method the activity of neurons can be tracked with a high degree of specificity—both in spatial and temporal resolution. 

The EROS recordings are plotted on a magnetic resonance (MR) image of the brain. Sometimes subjects perform the same task while their brains are imaged with both EROS and a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner in order for researchers to map where and when certain parts of the brain are activated, providing information about how different areas of the brain communicate with one another. 

The helmet used for recording EROS is made of several strips of foam, connected together with elastic, so it fits snugly around a head. There are holes punched along the foam, where up to 24 light detectors and 64 light sources are connected to the recording machine through optic fibers. The sources emit a very small amount of safe, non-ionizing light.  EROS measures the time it takes for the light to travel through the brain and that time is altered by cognitive activity. 

The producers of Black Box asked Fabiani and Gratton, who lead the lab, to include the technique and the helmet in the show.

“We recently revamped our helmets—we used to use modified motorcycle helmets, but now they’re lighter and softer, made with foam,” Low said. “I had one of my prototypes for the new design lying around that we’d never use otherwise, so we sent it to the show and it worked out.”

Because the helmets fit everyone differently, the research team goes through an extensive process to align the optical data from each subject with their MRI brain image. 

“To connect the data we get to each subject, we digitize, or make a map, of all the holes of the helmet when it’s on a person’s head, along with marking some landmark places—the ears and the bridge of the nose,” Low said “Then we mark those same places with Vitamin E pills when the subject gets a structural MRI scan.”

The areas marked by Vitamin E glow brightly when they’re in an MRI scanner. This allows the researchers to accurately line up the optical recording locations with the brain structure of each individual. This alignment allows the researchers to visualize where the neural activity is taking place.

EROS was first developed in 1995 by Gratton and Fabiani. At first, it was recorded using just one source and one detector attached to the head, but the machines used now have hundreds of channels recording simultaneously, allowing for a more comprehensive view of brain activity. The lab has trained many other labs around the world to use this technique, so others can use the maps of neural activity that EROS provides. At the Beckman Institute, the Diffuse Optical Imaging Laboratory (DOIL) in the Biomedical Imaging Center (BIC) houses a shared EROS system so that researchers from across the world can use the equipment.

“We are excited that this show is exposing a broader audience to new technology,” said Low. “If it’s enough for even one person to think it might be cool to go into cognitive neuroscience or that it might be cool to use this technique, then that’s wonderful.”