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High-density magnetoencephalography laboratory peers into the mysteries of human brain function


Montreal, QC – Neuropsychology and cognition researchers at the Universit de Montral have a new state of the art research instrument at their disposal: a high-density whole-head magnetoencephalography (MEG) system.

The first such brain imaging laboratory in Quebec and the most powerful device of this type in Canada, it was acquired by the Centre de recherche en neuropsychologie et cognition (CERNEC) at the Universit de Montral through a $6.2 million grant from the Canada Foundation for Innovation and the Government of Qubec. Researchers will use the new device to continue to probe the mechanisms that lie behind the workings of the human brain.

“How the brain works is mysterious in many ways,” says Franco Lepore, CERNEC director. “The research conducted at our centre is designed to improve our understanding of brain mechanisms, primarily in the area of perception and attention. This ultra-sophisticated machine will let us see how the brain processes the information it receives and, we hope, penetrate a few of the brain’s mysteries.”

With MEG, researchers can visualize to a high level of precision – on the order of two millimetres in space and one millisecond in time – the magnetic fields created by inter-neuronal currents in the brain.

“The spatial and temporal resolution of MEG presents previously unknown possibilities for research,” says professor Pierre Jolicoeur, director of the MEG laboratory. “For example, neuronal activity that underlies visual, auditory, and somatic-sensorial perception can now be located in the brain and tracked, millisecond-by-millisecond. In combination with experimental and cognitive psychology techniques, the MEG lab advances our understanding of the neuronal mechanisms behind memory, language, attention, pain, and emotions.”

With 275 sensing channels, the machine now in operation in Montreal is more powerful than any of the three similar devices used elsewhere in Canada (which have 151 sensing channels). The Universit de Montral’s MEG system and the three other devices used in Canada were all manufactured by Vancouver’s VSM MedTech.

The measurement instrument in the MEG laboratory, the whole-head magnetoencephalography system, consists of a set of 275 gradiometres arrayed around the participant’s head inside a fibreglass helmet. The gradiometres sense variations in the intensity of magnetic fields emanating from the electrical activity of the brain. Each gradiometre is connected to a SQUID (superconducting quantum interference device). The SQUIDs measure extremely low-intensity magnetic fields. These electronic components of the MEG are immersed in liquid helium, which keeps them at the extremely low temperature needed to ensure a state of superconduction (necessary to achieve extremely high levels of sensitivity).

The instrument resides in a metallic room that shields the instrument from magnetic fields emanating from sources outside the brain. The laboratory, which is equipped to stimulate the visual, auditory, and somatic-sensorial systems, can also simultaneously record high-density electroencephalographic signals.