A New Brain Sensor Maps the Human Brain With Record-Breaking Accuracy

Neuralink, take note.
Chris Young
The new ECoG sensorDavid Baillot/UC San Diego

A team of engineers and neurosurgeons developed a state-of-the-art brain sensor that could greatly enhance the treatment of cancer and epilepsy, according to a press statement from the University of California San Diego.

The new apparatus can record electrical signals from the brain's surface in a never-before-seen resolution for such a device.

The breakthrough opens up new possibilities for brain-computer interfaces, such as the ones being developed by Elon Musk's Neuralink. Not only will this help to improve diagnoses of deadly diseases, it also has the potential to transform our understanding of the human brain.

100 times more spatial resolution

The new device is a type of electrocorticography (ECoG) sensor. These are typically used during open brain surgery to measure electrical signals from the human brain in order to pinpoint active tissue, helping surgeons to better locate brain tumors for removal. The technology in the new device, outlined in a paper in the journal Science Translational Medicine, was designed to improve the accuracy of ECoG sensors. While most ECoG devices today feature somewhere between 16 and 64 sensors, the UC San Diego team's new device uses up to 2,048.

The reason behind this is that the UC San Diego team was able to produce sensor grids with far greater density while avoiding the problematic interference that has hampered other designs. To achieve this, the team used platinum rods instead of the flat platinum sensors typically used today. This allows for a configuration of 100 sensors per unit area, which constitutes a hundred times more spatial resolution than the previous average. The resulting sensor grids, built by placing the rods on a biocompatible material called parylene, are roughly one-tenth the size of a human hair — 100 times thinner than the ECoG sensors used today.

New technology could allow us to 'merge with AI'

In demonstrations, the scientists behind the new device mapped key regions of the brain in four subjects while they performed motor tasks. They also mapped the cortical column of a rat brain for the first time without the use of a needle and electrical stimulation. 

The UC San Diego team believes its device can be utilized to improve current brain-computer interface technologies. Neuralink, a company co-founded by SpaceX and Tesla CEO Elon Musk, recently announced it is hiring a clinical trial director, meaning it will soon be one crucial step closer to implanting computer chips into people's brains. In a 2019 Neuralink keynote presentation, Musk announced that brain-computer interfaces could help to treat brain diseases, they will eventually allow users to browse the web using their mind, and they could even help us to mitigate the existential threat of artificial intelligence by "merging with AI".

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