As medical technologies advance, noninvasive biometric measuring of all types hold great potential for diagnosis, for treatment, for patient care, and for learning. Ongoing advances require pushing the devices, the tools, and the data measurement, and the analysis. That’s a general statement about health and medical tech overall, but neuroscience stands out because the technology recently advanced by an order of magnitude. Measuring and localizing neural signals in the brain without invasive procedures is a challenge, but one that could yield a significant advantage for studies, surgery, and care related to human perception, attention, and awareness.

Scientists at Harvard Medical School and the Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging, Massachusetts General Hospital have been testing fast fMRI. Regular MRI detects structures, while fMRI (aka functional MRI) measures blood flow. The group recently published a report on their results, “Fast fMRI can detect oscillatory neural activity in humans” in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of AmericaPreviously, neuroscientists believed that fMRI was “too slow to measure brain oscillations because it depends on slow changes in blood flow.” In the study, the scientists worked measured the visual cortex with the latest MRI systems. They suspected that by combining fast fMRI with ultra-high-field MRI could actually locate brain activity, and their results showed they were right. The Harvard and Mass General scientists tracked neural responses 10 times faster than was previously assumed possible, raising the potential for location of brain activity accuracy by an order of magnitude. They also discovered that vascular response (blood flow) speeds up when brain activity fluctuates rapidly.

The next steps involve further testing to see just how fast functional MRIs can be pushed for even faster feedback. If blood flow reacts to neural activity consistently, then as the both types of MRI advance, the way we understand and monitor brain waves could be ready for huge leaps forward, resulting in advances across the medical spectrum. Applications that come to mind quickly include strokes, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, MS, autism, dyslexia, and ADHD among many conditions of interest to neuroscience as well as help with perception recovery, physical rehab, and even more accurate testing of proposed pharmaceuticals.