At Cardiff University Brain Research Imaging Centre (CUBRIC), gazing into the workings of the mind is more than just the stuff of science fiction. Using a technology called Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS), researchers can safely and painlessly stimulate electrical activity in one part of a volunteer’s brain, and find out how this affects their cognitive ability – or even use an MRI scanner to watch the changes in brain activity on a screen.

CUBRIC research building- photo of the side looking up at signage
man standing and woman sitting, CUBRIC building, Cardiff University
CUBRIC building, Cardiff University

What's more, the research at CUBRIC relies on equipment made in Wales. Magstim, based at Whitland in Carmarthenshire, is a world-leading developer and manufacturer of TMS machines. Its long partnership with CUBRIC reached a milestone in 2016, when it provided apparatus for the Centre's award-winning new building at the University’s Science and Innovation Campus.

Testing at Cardiff University Brain Research Imaging Centre
Technician looking at Motherboard
Manufacturing TMS equipment at Magstim

TMS machines work by stimulating electrical activity in the brain with brief, highly focused magnetic pulses, delivered via a coil held close to the head. Michael Polson, chief technical officer at Magstim, explains: “We provided CUBRIC with two types of machines. We make a device that produces single pulses. At its simplest, this allows the scientists to look at how certain nerve pathways are functioning – almost like a circuit checker.

TMS equipment used at Cardiff University
TMS equipment being held on the head of a patient to scan the brain
TMS equipment at Cardiff University

“The other type of device they have is our rapid-rate stimulator, which can deliver longer trains of electrical pulses. This can be used in conjunction with an MRI scanner to see what happens to brain metabolism: they stimulate one part of the brain and can see how this causes activity to start in other places, like a line of dominoes. It shows how nerve pathways interconnect and interact with each other.”

Our research group is primarily interested in cognitive control, attention and response inhibition. That’s the process of stopping an action once you’ve started it."

Dr Adam Partridge, manager of the Brain Stimulation Labs at CUBRIC, says: “Our research group is primarily interested in cognitive control, attention and response inhibition. That’s the process of stopping an action once you’ve started it.

“We can target the areas of the brain we’re interested in, deliver pulses while people are doing behavioural tasks and then measure the outcome of that task – for example their reaction time or accuracy. That’s the simplest way we use Magstim equipment, to probe the connections between brain and behaviour.”

Graphic of Phrenology head
TMS equipment being held on the head of a patient to scan the brain
Illustrated diagram of phrenological localization and TMS equipment at Cardiff University

Using TMS machines in the same room as an MRI scanner – effectively a giant electromagnet – brings formidable technical challenges, which Magstim’s engineers have been working hard to solve.

“You get huge forces exerted on the coil, which can cause it to fracture,” says Polson. “I did some calculations and came up with a rough estimate of 10,000 newtons, or 1,000kg. That’s the equivalent of a car hanging off the side of our coil. And we have to prevent the Magstim machines causing radio interference that stops the sensitive scanner from working. It’s a tricky challenge.”

Woman working at desk in  CUBRIC
Manufacturing TMS equipment at Magstim

Away from the laboratory, TMS is not only used as a research tool. In recent years, it has been approved as a drug-free treatment for depression in many territories, including the United States and the UK. This has provided Magstim with a broader market for its machines, carrying the Welsh company’s name into hospitals and treatment facilities all over the world.

And although the work done at CUBRIC is highly theoretical, its scientists’ findings could have a profound effect on the understanding and treatment of many common neurological conditions. Partridge says: “We’re doing basic neuroscience and trying to understand how the brain works; but further down the line, it might be applied to all sorts of things like problem gambling or eating disorders. Aspects of cognitive control are highly implicated in many of these disorders.”