Neural sensors the size of a grain of salt have been created

Neural sensors the size of a grain of salt have been created

Researchers at Brown University have developed an innovative computer-brain interface system consisting of tiny sensors

Photo: Jihun Lee / Brown University About 0.1 cubic millimeters. This is what a grain of salt measures, and now also a new type of sensors capable of recording the electrical activity of neurons: the field of computer-brain interfaces never ceases to amaze us. A team of researchers from Brown University, in the United States, in fact, has laid the foundations to design an innovative neural interface system that employs a network of tiny sensors, independent of each other and coordinated via wireless signal, which are capable, in studies on animals, to record the activity of the cerebral cortex. The hope is, in the future, to be able to study better and treat conditions that prevent the brain from communicating with the rest of the body. The results of the study were published in Nature Electronics.

Almost science fiction

Controlling the environment around us with the power of thought alone: ​​until a few years ago, such a perspective it belonged only to the realm of science fiction. Then came the computer-brain interfaces, assistive devices that seem to promise, in the not too distant future, the possibility, for people who have lost a brain function (such as walking, manipulating objects, communicating), to restore it through implantable sensors. .

The brain and the tissues that make up the nervous system communicate through electrical signals. When there is a problem, such as a brain injury, that directly affects these pathways, communication is suspended, and electrical signals from the brain fail to reach their destination. The sensors that make up the neural interfaces, on the other hand, are able to record electrical signals in the brain, re-elaborate them and use them to guide external devices, such as computers or robotic prostheses.

The human brain, however, is a much more complex system than a computer: it is estimated that it has about 86 billion neurons and that, in the cerebral cortex alone, there are more than 125 thousand billion synapses (the connections between neuronal cells). This is a level of complexity that seems impossible to achieve for modern neural interface technologies, even the most sophisticated: most current systems use only one or two sensors, and can record up to a few hundred neurons, too. few to understand and intervene on some brain functions. The basic idea of ​​neuroscientists is that the more sensors are used, the more neurons can be registered, and eventually stimulated.

A communication hub

The team of researchers, led by Arto Nurmikko, has designed a wireless network of microsensors the size of a grain of salt, which is why they have been renamed “neurograni”. In particular, the scientists used 48 "neurogrania", independently implanted with each other but perfectly communicating, to record the electrical activity of a rodent's cerebral cortex. The system works in this way: each microchip has an adhesive portion capable of attaching itself to the scalp, like a patch.

Each "neurograno" records the electrical activity of the neurons immediately close to the area where it is positioned. , and communicates with others using a network protocol. What you get is a real communication hub outside the body, which receives signals from the microchips and is able to record brain activity.

Although just under 50 neurograms have been used, this limit derives only from the size of the rodent's brain in the study: the data suggest that the current configuration of the system could support up to 770, and, with subsequent developments, it could be possible to build networks of thousands of "neurograni". This would mean a recording of neuronal activity with unprecedented resolution.

"One of the great challenges in the field of brain-computer interfaces is finding ways to probe as many points in the brain as possible," he said Nurmikko: “Until now, most computer-brain interfaces have consisted of monolithic devices, which consist of small beds of numerous sensors. Our team's idea was to break that monolith down into tiny sensors that could be distributed through the cerebral cortex. ”

Researchers say this is a big step towards a system that could enable recording brain signals in unprecedented detail, leading to new insights into how the brain works and new ways to treat people with brain or spinal injuries. "Our hope is that we can eventually develop a system that provides new scientific knowledge about the brain and new therapies that can help those affected by devastating injuries", the researcher explains.

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