Brain Computer interfaces rely on implants being inserted into the brain to monitor, record and stimulate neurotransmissions. The technology itself has evolved over the last few years, and now with BCIs capable of supercharging intelligence in the works, there is a bright future ahead.
However, the technology relies on implants that can either relay chemical, electrical or optical signals which greatly limits our capacity to understand the complexities of brain functions. With that said, a recent study published in Nature Neuroscience heralds a golden age of possible breakthroughs in brain research.
Previously, brain research could only be done through devices that could only manipulate chemical, optical signals individually. According to one of the researchers from MIT, Polina Anikeeva, the combination of the separate functionality of each type of device was somewhat probabilistic.
If it was possible to combine each of the devices into one, then not only would it be more efficient and reliable but time-saving as well. The scientist came up with an optogenetic device using fibers that are only 200 micrometers wide and are built to mirror the delicate, flexible nature of brain tissue.
The multi-purpose fibers were created using a technique similar to that of making the French pastry known as Mille-feuille—according to Benjamin Grena. Flakes of graphite are added to a conductive polyethylene and later compressed together, and more flakes are added, and the process is repeated multiple times.
A key benefit of using this technique is that it improves the conductivity by four to five times. The technique allows scientists to scale down the electrode size by the same quantity. Since the fibers are minute, it will allow them to last longer in the brain without any corrosion. Moving forward, the scientists are looking into use much softer materials that mimic brain tissue. —Seongjun Park, lead author of the study.
In an experiment with mice, the scientists injected opsins—vectors that deliver viral payloads, via fluid pathways within the fiber. The vectors carried genes that enhanced neuron illumination by light. After the opsin had taken effect, the scientists transmitted a light pulse via the optical waveguide.
The subsequent neural activity was recorded via six electrodes built from the same material to identify precise activity. A while ago, this would have involved using numerous separate devices—optical fibers for the delivering the pulse of light, needles, and several electrodes.
According to a professor at the Northwestern University who wasn’t involved in the study, John Rogers, the researchers show incredibly intricate designs and abilities for multi-purpose fiber apparatuses that serves as a single platform for recording, colocalized expression, and illumination in brain research using optogenetics.
Rogers added that this kind of innovation is crucial to further advancement in neuroscience and would revolutionize continuing research on brain functions. According to Anikeeva, they small size could allow us to study different regions of neural activity in the brain.
Case in point, these fibers could further enhance our knowledge of brain function and could potentially revolutionize neural disorder treatment and build next-generation BCIs that could be used to do almost everything—from helping the blind to see to helping paralyzed people walk.