Saturday, 5 January 2013

Helium and Neuroscience

Modern cognitive neuroscience critically depends on helium. The most advanced methods for non-invasive brain imaging, function magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and magnetoencephalography (MEG), operate at near absolute zero (~4° Kelvin). This operating temperature can only be maintained with liquid helium. Although helium is the second most abundant element in the universe, helium supplies are strictly limited on Earth.

Recently, global helium shortages have forced many MEG centres into temporary shut down. MRI facilities have so far been less affected, because they require less frequent helium re-fills. But if the situation was to get much worse, then even MRI centres will be forced to shut down. Cooling down the magnet at the heart of MRI can cause major structural damage, potentially requiring a complete refit.

Writing for the The Independent, science editor Steven Conner explains some of the key factors at play [here]. In an accompanying piece, I  provide some more specific details of how recent shortages have affected our research at the Oxford Centre for Human Brain Activity [here]. It is impossible to predict how neuroscience methods will have advanced by the time the world's supply has been depleted in the next 30 years or so, but let's hope we have found new methods for non-invasive brain imaging that don't depend on an unavailable element.

The Independent: A ballooning problem: the great helium shortage
The Independent: Our research is on ice due to shortage of helium

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