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Scientists have advanced a brain-scanning technology that tracks what the brain is doing by shining dozens of tiny LED lights on the head. This new generation of neuroimaging compares favorably to other approaches but avoids the radiation exposure and bulky magnets the others require, according to new research at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.

The new optical approach to brain scanning is ideally suited for children and for patients with electronic implants, such as pacemakers, cochlear implants and deep brain stimulators (used to treat Parkinson's disease). The magnetic fields in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) often disrupt either the function or safety of implanted electrical devices, whereas there is no interference with the optical technique.

The new technology is called diffuse optical tomography (DOT). While researchers have been developing it for more than 10 years, the method had been limited to small regions of the brain. The new DOT instrument covers two-thirds of the head and for the first time can image brain processes taking place in multiple regions and brain networks such as those involved in language processing and self-reflection (daydreaming).

The results are now available online in Nature Photonics.

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