It is advertised as the first “Neurosquid Review Conference“. The First of what I wonder? The First in the World? In the country? The First to be advertised by the MedTechWest perhaps? There is no way of telling. I am not an expert on Neurosquids, but I check out some of the illustrations on the ad. It looks scientific enough. With lots of body cut-throughs displaying inner organs and sketchy drawings of human bodies with cables sticking out of them in strategic places. Not just scientific. Medical Science. Yummy – this is right up my alley. And there will be lunch – that settles it – I’m going! At the very least, I will get to satisfy my curiosity and find out what a Neurosquid is.
Said and done, at the date in question, feb 9 2016, I step into the Sahlgrens Aula at the Sahlgrenska University Hospital in Gothenburg, trying my best to look as if I belong. Scanning the room for the lunch buffet, while at the same time keeping an eye on the far corners, hoping to spot The Squid.
There is no squid and my disappointment is almost total. It turns out a neurosquid is just a little measuring gadget for small magnetic currents. how cool is that? But as the day passes by with one presentation after the next, my fascination for the subject increases. The conference seem to be largely a club for internal admiration: almost everybody know each other, even though the participants come from research groups all over the world. Some of the talks go way over my head, but a few of them have a more digestible approach. All of them have one thing in common: They all work way beyond the research front.
- Where do you regularly come in contact with quantum mechanics in your everyday life?
- What is one of the most common use of nanotechnology today?
- Why does most hospital machines measuring your bodies magnetism have to be so bulky?The answer is not The Matrix. The NeuroSQUID answers all of those questions.
SQUID stands for Superconducting Quantum Interference Device and is the most common detector of weak magnetic fields that exists. It was invented in 1964 and is in use today in hospitals in MRI cameras and MEG (magnetic encephalogram). The SQUID itself consists of a superconducting loop, interrupted by a thin insulating layer, which is called a Jospehson Junction. In the absence of an external magnetic field, electrons will tunnel through the insulating layer, creating a small base current, equally divided between the two branches of the loop. But in the presence of an external magnetic field, an additional current will flow through the loop, slightly changing the base current. The change can be measured as an electric signal and voila – we have measured the magnetic field. Today, SQUIDS are routinely used in hospital environment to measure brain activity of for magnetic imaging of the body or brain, using MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging). It can be used for schizophrenia research, diagnosis of epilepsy and for evaluation of neural damage after stroke of physical trauma.
So back to the topic of the day – why do those machines have to be so big that the patient needs to crawl into the machine instead of having the sensor placed on or inside the body? After all a SQUID is small – about half a millimeter across the loop. What do you remember from physics class about super conductors? The have to be cryogenically refrigerated! So, in addition to the sensor, we also need a huge cooling system, with fumigating and expensive storage tanks, safety procedures to keep liquid nitrogen from escaping, not to imagine the cost of producing and delivering and administering the coolant. Is there not a better way? This is the questions these groups were trying to answer – using the phenomenon of high critical temperature superconductors. There are a few elements, which experience superconducting properties at room temperature. Why they do so is still an open question in physics, but if we could make sensors out of those instead, science would have a whole new way to approach neurological measurements. They could be done in your home, on the move, of maybe (and why not), implanted in your scull.
No, we are still not talking about The Matrix. For starters, REAL scientists have much cooler outfits – AND they get free lunch.