Astronomers have better brain scans within their sights

Patients having hospital brain scans could receive faster and better diagnosis and avoid the need for repeat appointments, thanks to a new technique developed by astronomers.

Astronomers and clinicians at the University of Edinburgh have collaborated in adapting an algorithm designed to process complex data derived from studies of distant galaxies for use in Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scanning.

MRI scanning can record images of any part of the body from several angles and is used to examine organs or tissue. Patients who undergo scans may have to lie still for half-an-hour or more, while the scanner records successive layered images of their body, much like a slow-exposure photograph. If the patient moves, the images become distorted.

The astronomy algorithm corrects distortions caused by movement or caused by the scanner. This makes the technique especially suitable for use with children or seriously ill patients, and avoids patients having to undergo repeat scans to get accurate results.

Once an MRI scan is complete, it currently takes a long time to analyse the results fully, whereas the new algorithm can deliver results instantly - without an expensive supercomputer.

Presently many scans are useless because of distortion errors and have to be repeated, so this technology could save time and allow more patients to have faster access to appointments. It could also deliver substantial savings for healthcare providers. Professor Alan Heavens, of the University of Edinburgh's School of Physics, said: "It was clear that we had the solution to a general problem - how to compress vast amounts of data into manageable, meaningful results - and we wanted to find applications for it. We estimate that in two or three years this technology, derived from pure astronomy research, will be bringing benefits to patients."

Commercialisation Manager, Trevor Whittley, said that this is a classic example of technology transfer from one field in to another, where blue-sky research can lead to real practical clinical and social benefits. The University is very grateful to Scottish Enterprise for their support under their Proof of Concept Programme.


Image of part of brain

The algorithms will make correcting and analysing images like this section through a brain for quicker and more accurate.


Professor Alan Heavens, School of Physics, tel 0131 668 8352;

Trevor Whittley, Knowledge Transfer Office, tel: 0131 650 5236;

Catriona Kelly, Press and PR Office, 0131 651 4401;