Photo: Jonas Neergaard-Nielsen and Sepehr Ahmadi

Quantum physics provides new knowledge about the brain

Thursday 18 Jan 18


Ulrik Lund Andersen
DTU Physics
+45 45 25 33 06


Axel Thielscher
DTU Health Tech
+45 45 25 53 13

A new major research project between quantum physicists and neurophysiologists will increase our understanding of the brain. 

In the past couple of years, quantum physicists have developed new measuring technologies which, by measuring fields rather than electronically, make it possible to quickly get far more precise and higher resolution images of the brain than before.

In a new project, a team of leading quantum physicists and researchers with an insight into imaging using, for example, MRI scanning, will for the first time test and develop the new technology on biological and neurophysiological material. The aim is to create extremely high-resolution images of the brain and with very high degree of sensitivity.

“The human brain is an incredibly complex system, whose function we still do not fully understand. One of today’s biggest challenges therefore is to achieve a more in-depth understanding of the brain and its underlying principles,” explains Professor Ulrik Lund Andersen, DTU Physics, who is heading the new project.

“Armed with greater knowledge about how the brain works and how the signals in the brain move, it will also be possible to find out how brain-related diseases such as Alzheimer’s can be cured. However, it is still some way off in the future before we have that knowledge,” says Professor Ulrik Lund Andersen.

"The human brain is an incredibly complex system, whose function we still do not fully understand."
Professor Ulrik Lund Andersen, DTU Physics

Highly detailed images
The DTU research group has already developed a number of new measuring techniques using the principles of quantum physics, which provide extremely detailed images of human tissue and mouse brains, which have been used to test the techniques. These techniques now need to be developed and refined, at the same time that the newly developed quantum technology measuring methods are applied for the first time within the biological and neurophysiological areas.

“The coming project will be a kind of proof of concept. We must prove that it is possible to use our techniques to measure muscle and brain activity in living tissue. The practical measurements will also give us the input necessary to be able to further develop our measuring methods, so they become even better,” says Senior Scientist Axel Thielscher, an associate professor at DTU Electrical Engineering and senior researcher at Hvidovre Hospital. He works daily with MRI scans, and is impressed by the imaging results already achieved with the quantum technology.

Researchers at DTU are working with three different methods that provide different results in relation to sensitivity and resolution. The methods will be used to detect activity in muscles, nerves, and in the content of molecules. In the long term, the intention is that the systems will be used to reproduce images of both the entire brain, cerebral circulation, and of the smallest synapses with a resolution at nano-molecular level.

A greater understanding of the brain is not only interesting for the medical field and being able to prevent or cure diseases. Knowledge about how the brain functions can also be used in many other contexts. For example, a disabled person with an artificial limb will benefit from new knowledge that can teach us how the brain, for example, makes an arm perform the desired movements.

Ulrik Lund Andersen’s project is one of three projects which have each received DKK 15 million from the Novo Nordisk Foundation. The grants come from the foundation’s Interdisciplinary Synergy Programme, which provides funding for innovative interdisciplinary research. The background for the programme is that many health-related challenges and issues cannot be resolved through a traditional unidisciplinary approach.

Professor Hartwig Siebner from Hvidovre Hospital and Associate Professor Jean-Francois Marie Perrier from the University of Copenhagen are also participating in the project.

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