Touching Lives - June 2005
The infra-red brain scanner for babies
With Action Medical Research funding it was later adapted to measure oxygen in babies’ brains during labour. This provided doctors with vital information about babies who suffered oxygen shortage during delivery and about what damage, if any, was being caused to the brain.
How was it developed?
The idea was first demonstrated in 1978 by a physiologist called Frans Jobsis. Action Medical Research awarded funding to several teams at University College London during the 1990s to develop a version of the scanner that could be used for babies during labour. This required a very different design with features that could cope with movement of the optical fibres during contractions, as well as a new design of fibres and a method of holding them onto the head using suction.
The scanner shines harmless infrared light into the baby’s brain. The “colour” of the light is then read by very sensitive light detectors placed on the baby’s scalp while in the birth canal, and the information is passed to a computer. The oxygen level within the brain tissue is calculated continuously from the light readings and the information is displayed on a screen, allowing doctors and health staff to monitor the baby’s condition. If the scanner shows that the baby is not receiving enough oxygen, the mother can be given more, or repositioned to improve oxygen transfer to the baby. Before the scanner was developed, it had not been possible to know the benefits to the baby of increased oxygen in the mother.
Not only did this equipment give doctors much more accurate information about the condition of the baby during birth, allowing them to make informed decisions about treatment, but it was also the first time that anyone in the world had found a way of studying the brains of unborn babies.
The equipment has since been used in a number of research studies around the world to provide unique information to help doctors minimise the risk of brain damage. Recently it has been further developed to provide images of oxygen levels within the brain. It is hoped that this form of brain scanning may become a routine part of medical care for all tiny and vulnerable babies, both during and immediately after birth.
Our thanks go to Sparks for generously supporting this research.