A team of scientists from Brown University is on the verge of revolutionizing brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) which are assistive gadgets that have the potential to aid those with brain or spinal injuries resulting in moving and communicating issues.
They've created a system that employs dozens of silicon microchips distributed around the brain's surface or within its tissue to record and transmit activity to a computer, collecting a massive amount of neurological data in the process. With this approach, they can gather neural signals from more regions than currently possible with others, and they might help researchers better understand the brain and develop novel medical treatments, according to a press release.
Approximately the size of a grain of salt, the researchers have named them “neurograins," and according to the paper published in the journal Nature Electronics, they've only been implemented in rats so far. To test the viability of the neurograin prototypes, the researchers implanted 48 of them on the cerebral cortex --the outer layer of the brain-- of a rat while it was under anesthesia, focusing on the motor and sensory areas of the brain. The scientists were able to record the animal's spontaneous cortical activity.
“Each grain has enough micro-electronics stuffed into it so that, when embedded in neural tissue, it can listen to neuronal activity on the one hand, and then can also transmit it as a tiny little radio to the outside world,” Arto Nurmikko, a neuroengineers at Brown University and lead author of the study, explained to Wired.
However, there was a catch: the signal quality was not as good as that of coming from chips utilized in existing brain-computer interfaces. The researchers believe that if they can enhance the output quality of the system, it could provide a way to examine broader regions of the brain, and the prototype may set the basis for human studies, according to Wired.
The research may pave the road to implanting neurograins in human test subjects, which would reportedly require 770 neurograins per brain. This opens the door for the chips to aid in the stimulation of neurons with electric pulses in addition to monitoring brain activity, potentially treating major neurological diseases such as Parkinson's, paralysis, or epilepsy.
For the time being, the team intends to test the neurograins in conscious, mobile rats, with monkeys being the next stage. With more research, such a device might one day allow for the recording of brain signals in unprecedented detail, paving the way to new insights into how the brain functions and novel therapies for patients with brain or spinal injuries.