Cerebro: an innovative method for imaging brain activity

The Cerebro research project aims to provide very detailed and comprehensive images of the brain's electrical activity, thanks to a non-invasive process based on injecting a new contrast agent.

A major breakthrough may be in the offing in the field of brain imaging thanks to the Cerebro project, which includes a number of IMT Atlantique researchers. Cerebro aims to non-invasively obtain precise and comprehensive brain activity information, thanks to an innovative contrast agent. This would constitute a landmark achievement in neuroscience, particularly for the screening, diagnosis and treatment of diseases (epilepsy, cancer, etc.).
Until now, brain activity is classically mapped using the electroencephalogram (EEG). This is performed by placing electrodes on the patient's scalp. However, resolution remains poor because the skull, which is highly resistive, hinders the transmission of the signal. To avoid this shielding effect, the electrodes can be implanted under the skull (called ECoG) or in the cerebral cortex (StereoEEG). Both methods give good results - but only give access to local brain activity information. And above all, they are  highly invasive: they require trepannation of the patient's skull.

François Rousseau, professor in the Image and Information Processing Department (ITI) and Adrien Merlini, teacher-researcher in the Microwave Department (MO).

Cerebro aims to modify the electrical signal emitted by the brain

In contrast, Cerebro's approach aims to increase the resolution of non-invasive imaging to achieve the same level of accuracy as invasive methods. This is done by injecting an electronic 'contrast agent' into the patient's bloodstream to obtain a precise reading of the signal without opening the cranium. 
"Our objective is twofold," explains Adrien Merlini, a teacher-researcher in the Microwaves (MO) department at IMT Atlantique, "first, to modify the electrical signal emitted by the brain in order to facilitate its transmission, thanks to the contrast agent. And second, to use new ways of both recovering this signal and measuring it better, using data analysis methods."
The Cerebro team will use algorithms used in oceanography, for example, as well as deep learning techniques.

Numerous partners involved

Compared to the traditional electroencephalogram, Cerebro introduces a real paradigm shift: the entire signal transmission and processing chain changes. "In brain imaging, most players seek to extract as much information as possible from the image obtained. Our approach is different: we first seek to change the information," emphasises François Rousseau, professor in the Image and Information Processing (ITI) department. The most delicate and innovative part lies in the development of a completely harmless contrast agent. Several avenues are being explored in this respect.

The project brings together a number of partners: the Politecnico di Torino, which is coordinating the project and working on the development of the contrast agent, the Université de Bretagne Occidentale (UBO), and G.Tech, an Austrian SME which specializes in measuring devices and electrodes. The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL) is also a partner. IMT Atlantique is in charge of signal processing and modelling, in collaboration with a radiologist and a neurosurgeon from Brest University Hospital, who are providing feedback on patient acceptability.

Cerebro: selected as part of the European EIC Pathfinder Open

Cerebro has been selected as part of the European 'EIC Pathfinder Open' program, run by the European Innovation Council. This is a highly selective program, which supports projects likely to lead to breakthrough innovations. Launched in October 2022, Cerebro has obtained a budget of 2.5 million euros for a period of 48 months. This is enough to finance a PhD that has started on the Brest campus within the LaTIM (Medical Information Processing Laboratory) (1), in collaboration with another laboratory, Lab-STICC (2). A second PhD should be launched soon, and the group also plan to recruit a post-doc.

Eventually, the team plans to design a measuring device for clinical application. One company has already shown interest. "For the time being, we are still in the very early stages," says Adrien Merlini. "We are not yet testing on humans. First we have to show that the concept is viable - and we intend to do that. The next step will be to make the technology more reliable with new funding. Only then can we move on to production." Cerebro is a promising project with a long-term outlook.

(1) The LaTIM is a joint unit (UMR 1101) of Inserm, the University of Western Brittany and IMT Atlantique, in association with Brest University Hospital.

(2) Laboratory of Information, Communication and Knowledge Sciences and Technologies. It brings together IMT Atlantique, ENSTA Bretagne, UBO, the University of Southern Brittany (UBS), ENI Brest and CNRS (UMR 6285).

Published on 17.04.2023

by Pierre-Hervé VAILLANT

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