2022 Clifford Paterson Medal and Prize

Dr Elena Boto, Dr Niall Holmes and Dr Ryan M Hill for the design, fabrication, demonstration and commercialisation of a new wearable brain imaging technology, based on optically pumped magnetometers, that is capable of characterising human brain function with unprecedented accuracy.

Magnetoencephalography (MEG) measures the magnetic fields generated by current flow in neuronal networks, offering a unique window on brain function in health and disease. However, conventional scanners, based on cryogenically cooled superconducting sensors, are heavy, cumbersome and have limited performance; they require patients to remain still for long periods, are unsuitable for children and data quality is hampered by the need for thermal insulation which increases brain–sensor separation.

Dr Elena Boto, Dr Niall Holmes and Dr Ryan Hill have pioneered the application of quantum technologies to MEG. They used optically pumped magnetometers (OPMs) to measure the neuromagnetic field. Since OPMs are small, lightweight and do not require cryogenics, an OPM-MEG system can be worn as a helmet; participants are free to move, the system adapts to anyone (newborn to adult) and sensors can be placed much closer to the head, dramatically enhancing data quality. OPM-MEG is also cheaper than conventional scanners.

Dr Elena Boto

Award winner Elena Boto Paterson

Boto began this work in 2015, publishing theoretical insights and the first MEG measurements with a commercial OPM. She pioneered the idea of a ‘wearable’ system and has shown how this technology outperforms the clinical standard. She was the first to measure brain networks using OPM-MEG and has recently demonstrated the significant advantages of triaxial field measurement.

Dr Niall Holmes

Award Winner Niall Holmes-Paterson

Holmes’ work has generated the optimised environment critical to enabling OPM-MEG operation. Specifically, precision control of background magnetic fields is needed because the fields from the brain are so small. He has pioneered technology that controls these fields at the picoTesla level. Because of this, he was able to publish the first MEG recordings in freely moving subjects.

Dr Ryan M Hill

Award Winner Ryan Hill-Paterson

Hill was the first to demonstrate the use of OPM-MEG in children, demonstrating how free movement during scanning can revolutionise experimental design. He published the first demonstration of a whole head OPM-MEG system and has optimised OPM-MEG system design. He recently demonstrated the equivalence of OPM-MEG systems in different environments, paving the way for widespread clinical use.

It is integration of these outstanding individual contributions that made commercialisation of OPM-MEG viable. Cerca Magnetics Limited was launched in July 2020 (with Boto, Holes and Hill as co-founders) as the vehicle to take OPM-MEG to market. In its first year, Cerca was profitable with over £1 million of sales; sales of greater than £3 million are predicted in 2022. Customers include major children’s hospitals and leading academic institutions worldwide. With applications now spanning the gamut of brain health, this new technology has potential to significantly enhance 21st Century healthcare.