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Human Brain Imaging Project to Study Social Interactions in Real Time

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 Researchers at Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC have recieved a $2.4 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, for a groundbreaking new brain imaging technique. It can actually study nuances of social interactions, by monitoring subtle pressure changes in the brain.

Scientists have long been able to study the human brain with MRIs, but this new device deploys something called “optically pumped magnetometry.” It measures changes in brain blood flow during social interactions.

It’s  the brain child of Professor Reed Montague and his team at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute's Center for Human Neuroscience Research.  They've been working and planning for this opportunity for 15 years. Now, they've been awarded a $2.4 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to test the new device, one of the first of its kind.

Montague says the goal is to explore human behavior in real time by studying volunteers with the new device,  "just doing what they do, things most people do that’s normally human, which is: to interact with other people."

The device looks like some kind of paper helmet on steroids, with wires attached to a special headset that measures brain pressure.  That means, that for the first time, scientists can track those pressure changes as people move about, interact, talk, laugh, and hang out, as they would in more normal social settings.

Until now, these kinds of studies could be done only inside an MRI machine. That's not ideal for young children or people with limited mobility. And it also misses the very goal they've set for this project.

“And so, it's human interaction that we hope to study,” says Montague. And that's what makes this device unique.  Because it's wearable, it can go where you go during the experiment, getting close to a real life interaction.

"And while we live in a Zoom world where now, we interact a lot through screens, the fact is the one thing that we're all missing this year, is, that real interaction with other human beings. It's the thing that makes us collaborate and cooperate really well. And it's the, it's the thing that really defines us as a species."
 

The Fralin Biomedical Research Institute's Center for Human Neuroscience Research project is looking for volunteers to test the wearable, lightweight headsets that use quantum sensor chips to measure the strength and originating location of magnetic fields produced by the human brain.  Here's where to find more information.

***Editor's Note: Radio IQ is a service of Virginia Tech.

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