Mickaël Tanter: Revolution in Neuroimaging

Mickaël Tanter, Director of the Wave Physics for Medicine Unit and Deputy Director of the Institut Langevin (Paris), is behind new imaging technology based on ultrafast ultrasonic wave measurement. Funding from the European Research Council (ERC Advanced Grant), obtained in 2013, will help him to demonstrate the value of this technology in the field of neuroscience.

You have a background in physics and engineering, so how did you become involved in medical imaging?

Mickael Tanter
Mikaël Tanter © Inserm/Delapierre, Patrick

My family and my professors pushed me towards physics and math during my studies, but I have always been fascinated by medicine. That is why I chose to do my Ph.D., and now my research, in the field of biomedical applications of physics. Working at the crossroads of these two fields is very fruitful, just as it has been in the past. For example, Robert Hooke, a 17th-century English physicist, invented of the compound microscope. He also bequeathed to us the name of the basic component of living things: the cell, a small compartment that he compared to a monk’s cell.

What is the purpose of your project funded by the ERC and how does it relate to the work that you have been doing for nearly 20 years in the design of new imaging tools based on ultrasound?

This project aims to exceed the limits of temporal and spatial resolution of images obtained by ultrasound, in order to develop a new modality of neuroimaging by ultrasound.

By means of the enormous calculation capacity of current computer boards, we have been able to design an ultrafast ultrasound, capable of acquiring more than 10,000 images per second instead of the 50 acquired with conventional devices. This measurement is interesting, because it allows you to measure the propagation speed of low-frequency vibrations in the body, which provides information on the hardness of tissue. This parameter is essential in assessing the benign or malignant character of a mammary mass non-invasively, for example. In fact, pathologies change the structure of tissue and therefore its hardness. The ultrafast ultrasound used in diagnostics is today marketed throughout the world by the company that I created with Mathias Fink in 2005, Supersonic Imagine.

This ultrafast acquisition speed has also led us to design a highly sensitive blood flow imaging system, based on the Doppler ultrasound principle. This principle obtains blood vessel images from red blood cell movement, but it only allows you to view large vessels. With ultrafast ultrasound and appropriate mathematical analysis of data, we have been able to increase the sensitivity to very slow flows by a factor of 50, which means that we have been able to make small vessels of 100 to 150 microns visible. For example, this new imaging tool allows you to detect the microvascularization associated with cancer development. Moreover, by letting you see subtle changes in blood flow related to brain activity, it also opens up future prospects for the study of the brain. In addition, the device is relatively small and portable, which allows for bedside recording of the patient, including newborns whose skull bones have not completely grown together.

The purpose of the project funded by the ERC is to demonstrate that ultrasound may become a complementary modality of neuroimaging, particularly when functional MRI is difficult or impossible to use for practical or financial reasons. This is the case in basic research conducted on animals (requiring anesthetics to immobilize them), neuroimaging of babies in the clinic and even neurosurgery. The latter would here benefit from a tool that makes it easy to avoid touching parts of the brain essential for the life of the patient prior to tumor ablation.

We have already obtained very promising results in infants, in partnership with the Hôpital Robert Debré, and in neurosurgery, with the departments of the Hôpital universitaire Pitié-Salpêtrière.

Why is ERC funding essential to this work?

The ERC's financial contribution (€2.5 million) has allowed us to deploy a substantial workforce in the field of neuroimaging and to initiate new collaborations, such as the project on hearing with the École normale supérieure (ENS) and another on addiction with the École supérieure de physique et de chimie industrielles de Paris (ESPCI). Therefore, we are able to stay ahead of international competition. In completely different field, we were also chosen by ERC Comics, a project intended to make the research carried out under the European funding program more accessible in the form of comics. The first edition on our work will be available online in September 2017.

Learn more about Mickaël Tanter and his work

Mickaël Tanter is the Director of the Wave Physics for Medicine Unit (Inserm Unit 979 /CNRS/ESPCI/Université Denis Diderot/Université Pierre et Marie Curie) and Deputy Director of the Institut Langevin in Paris. He received the Opecst-Inserm Prize in 2014.