A new system for recording the electrical signals of individual neurons could allow much better brain to computer interfaces.
We have recently seen the development of number of potential treatments for neurological conditions, such as virtual reality used to help treat Alzheimer’s patients and a device that helps stroke victims regain mobility by sending electrical signals to their brain. One key to developing effective new treatments for neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s is finding a way to better understand what is happening in the brain. To do this, it is necessary to monitor and map the activity of neurons in the brain. Up to now, the most accurate devices for taking these types of measurements have been intracranial probes, which are surgically implanted in or near the brain. Now, a team of nanoscientists at Harvard have developed an electronic mesh, around the width of a human hair, which is flexible enough to be stuffed into the needle of a syringe and injected into the brain. Once injected, the mesh unfurls to make contact with the brain, where it can then record the activity of individual neurons.
The new device starts off as a tiny, flat sheet about the size of a postage stamp. It is made of metal electrodes and silicone wires that are each only billionths of a meter thick. A variety of sensors can incorporated into the mesh, which is suspended in liquid and drawn up into a syringe. It can then be precisely injected to any region of the brain, without causing damage. After injection, the mesh returns to its original shape and can network wirelessly with neurons in the brain, recording signals and stimulating activity in targeted areas of the brain without risk of damage that can occur from other types of probes. The mesh can also be injected into other areas, such as the eyes.
The lab conducting the research, the Lieber Group, has also demonstrated that similar types of electronic mesh probes can be injected into synthetic materials as well, such as cavities inside silicone rubber blocks. These could then be used to monitor the stability and strength of buildings and other structures using corrosion and pressure sensors. Team leader Charles Leiber points out that many conventional probes fail over time due to damage to the brain they are implanted it, while the mesh does not cause any damage or immune response. Could this type of implant lead to improved treatments for neurological diseases? What other uses might it have?