You can't do science without data, and a team at Berkeley has proposed a method to get a lot more data about the brain. All they need to do is sprinkle your brain with tiny dust-like sensors.
The key to unraveling the mysteries of the brain may lie in getting better real time data from that cluster of neurons. We have effective imaging technologies like functional MRI and positron emission tomography (PET), which can even be used to interact with machines. However, an MRI machine isn’t very portable. Science has been exploring the role of implantable devices for years, but a new paper from researchers at the University of California, Berkeley proposes a new kind of implantable sensor — intelligent dust that can infiltrate the brain, record data, and communicate with the outside world.
The preliminary design was undertaken by Berkeley’s Dongjin Seo and colleagues. They describe a network of tiny sensors that could be introduced into the brain. Each package would be little more than a speck 100 micrometers (one-tenth of a millimeter) across, which is why the team decided to call it neural dust.
The smart particles would all contain a standard (but very small) CMOS sensor capable of measuring electrical activity in nearby neurons. Rather than design a microscopic battery that would only die after a short time, the researchers envision a piezoelectric material backing the CMOS capable of generating electrical signals from ultrasound waves. The process would also work in reverse, allowing the dust to beam data back out via high-frequency sound waves. The entire package would be coated in a polymer, thus making it bio-neutral.
Ultrasound would likely be considerably safer than beaming electromagnetic waves back and forth. Ultrasound transfers much less energy to surrounding tissues — Seo and company believe it could keep the neural network charged and connected without heating the brain or skull (which is always good to hear).
The patient could have thousands of these devices nestled in their brain tissue, but a few additional components would be needed. A larger subdural transceiver would send the ultrasound waves to the dust and pick up the return signal. The internal transceiver would be wirelessly connected to an external device on the scalp (again, via ultrasound) that contains data processing hardware, a long range transmitter, storage, and a battery. It would be considerably easier to replace this external transmitter than a thousand microscopic sensors in the brain.
Via Szabolcs Kósa