Uncovering human interaction

Portable neuroimaging devices developed at UCL carry huge potential for understanding human interaction

Author: Maria Kossowska
Editor: Denis Duagi
Artist: Maddie Throssell


Techniques for functional brain mapping are critical for the diagnosis of neurological disorders and other non-invasive procedures. Yet, one of the greatest challenges embedded in these scanning techniques is for patients to remain still whilst the brain is being mapped.

Movement introduces noise into the brain scans, decreasing their ability to provide reliable data that can be interpreted effectively. This characteristic of functional brain mapping techniques has not only made it more challenging to map the brain activity of children,  who struggle to remain still, but also makes it impossible to investigate the neural activity that occurs when individuals are walking or during everyday interactions outside the laboratory environment. There is a need for wearable devices that allow the tracking of millisecond by millisecond activity changes in the human brain.

Gareth Barnes’s Functional Imaging Laboratory based in the Division of Bioscience at UCL, works on developing wearable magnetoencephalography devices, using optically pumped magnetometers (OPMs). Essentially, OPMs consist of wearable sensors the size of a Lego brick that are placed over subjects’ heads using personalised 3D printed scaffolding to hold the sensors in place. OPM is currently in use at UCL to investigate non-invasive language mapping in children and measuring activity from the human hippocampus during movement.

OPMs could potentially aid researchers in understanding the patterns of naturally occurring human interactions, an area that is yet to be investigated. Before the invention of OPMs, there was an attempt to study neuronal activity during a conversation. The study aimed to identify brain regions involved in the turn-taking system between two participants using the functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) technique. In other words, they aimed to determine what brain areas are associated with withholding one’s utterance and waiting for the next possible moment to speak, as to not overlap with the other speaker. However, using fMRI to study turn-taking phenomena has been criticised by sociologists, who have highlighted that the central feature of human interaction is its natural occurrence. Studying the human brains of two people having a conversation using microphones and headphones, whilst enclosed in two different giant magnets that make spooky and loud noises, based in two different cities, is far from a naturally occurring interaction. Yet, this study could make a big contribution to our understanding of human interaction. OPMs would allow the speakers to conduct interaction in an unconstrained environment. 

The demand for wearable brain imaging devices is required to investigate and treat the human brain. OPMs seem to be the solution for the mentioned problems encountered in research. More interestingly, they could also shed light on questions of human interaction. 

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