Scientists have developed a new technique able to measure brain function in milliseconds using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Known as magnetic resonance elastography (MRE). This could be used to help diagnose and understand neurological diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, multiple sclerosis and epilepsy.

Currently, the speed at which scientists can measure brain function in a functional MRI machine is six seconds. Preclinical research conducted by Harvard Medical School, King’s College London and INSERM-Paris suggests that MRE can track brain function activity within 100 milliseconds.

MRE works by creating maps of tissue stiffness using an MRI scanner, which uses strong magnetic fields and radio waves to produce detailed images of the body.

“The data we are publishing was obtained in mice, but translation of this technology to humans is straightforward and initial studies are currently under way,” said Sam Patz, Harvard Medical School professor of radiology. “The intriguing novelty of this approach is that the stiffening/softening of specific brain regions persists even when stimuli as short as 100 milliseconds are presented to the mouse.”

Although researchers were initially interested in applying MRE to the lungs of the mice, the team decided to also run scans of the brain. By doing this, they found that the MRE revealed that the mouse’s acoustic cortex was stiffening, seemingly without any stimulation.

Scientists plugged one of the mouse’s ear canals with a gel to test whether this produced a different result. They then took another MRE scan of the brain, where they discovered that the auditory cortex on the side of the brain that processed sound from that ear had started to soften.

The research team is now keen to apply MRE technology to the human brain, with the aim of accelerating the diagnosis of neurological conditions.

“While the brain is capable of processing signals at very high speeds, functional MRI technology can’t follow fast neuronal changes, so we can’t ‘see the brain think’,” said Dr Ralph Sinkus, King’s College London professor of biomedical engineer & imaging sciences. “We’ve now discovered that MRE technology allows us to see brain activity on a much shorter time scale. This is a fascinating and unprecedented result as it shows that brain tissue changes in quasi real time. It will open a new gateway to understand how the brain is functioning.”