Several methods to investigate brain activity have been proposed to date . The most common techniques can be classified in terms of the task measured: neural activity or hemodynamics. Magnetoencephalography and electroencephalography measure neural activity directly via magnetic and electrical fields exhibiting excellent temporal resolution but poor spatial resolution [2,3]. In contrast to these methods, emission tomography, functional magnetic resonance and near-infrared spectroscopy measure hemodynamic changes associated with neural activation [4,5]. In particular, emission tomography measures cerebral metabolic rate of oxygen and cerebral blood flow, whereas functional magnetic resonance measures blood flow and blood oxygenation level dependent (BOLD) changes. Both these methods offer excellent spatial resolution but limited temporal performance. On the other hand, near-infrared spectroscopy overcomes the temporal resolution limitation of these techniques offering nonetheless intermediate spatial resolution performance.
An important feature of all these techniques is their contrast-to-noise ratio, i.e. task-induced change relative to background noise. Each method has peculiarities that emphasize certain mechanisms involved in stimulus perception or interpretation, e.g. electrical/magnetic mechanisms, mechanical/thermal mechanisms or hemodynamic mechanisms. Many variables come into play in the gamut of brain activities, and thus the integration of different techniques may represent an appropriate strategy.
Motion artefacts must be addressed for all these techniques, even if some methods, such as electroencephalography, are relatively less sensitive to motion as compared to others, e.g. the combination of electroencephalography and near infrared spectroscopy may provide a more reliable interpretation of brain activity.
Over the last decades, great improvements have been achieved in the investigation of the human brain by these techniques [1-5]. Nevertheless, it would be advantageous to simultaneously observe both neural and hemodynamic activity. The design of such instrumentation might also encourage more cross talk among scientists studying the intricate complexities of this process.
In this framework, we present a system combining a continuous-wave near infrared spectrometer (NIMO, NIROX srl, Italy) and an electroencephalography system. A single personal computer is used to record and process signals and to control the visual stimulation during the experiments. This design allows comparison between neural electrical activity (evoked potential signals) and hemodynamic response (near infrared spectroscopy) triggered by the same stimulation.
After a discussion on the basic theory, measuring principle and system configuration, we present an application of the instrument through experimental results obtained from stimulation of the human visual system with different contrast levels.