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Looking inside a neurone

A neurone over a grid of nano-spikes observed with an electron microscope. Credit: Integrated Electronics and Biointerfaces Laboratory, UC San Diego

Progress in science occurs through analyses of data. The more data you have the more you can test hypotheses and ideas. It does not matter if you are looking at black holes in distant galaxies or into a cell.
This is why getting data is so important. And technology progress is often finding new ways of getting more and more accurate data.

Researchers at UC San Diego have created an array of nanowire so tiny that can enter the neurone membrane with no disruption to the working of the cell. Actually, they are so dense that several of them can enter the neurone, providing very accurate detection of electrical potential at micro level.

The array is made with silicon-nickel-titanium spikes emerging from a chip that is compatible with CMOS technology, hence it would be straightforward to interface the array with everyday electronics.

The nano array observed with a SEM (Scanning Electron Microscope). The spikes are so tiny that can enter the neurone membrane without damaging it, nor disrupting the functioning of the neurones. They can detect very tiny changes in electrical activity within the neurone.

They have been able to prove the non-destructive nature of the nano array grid by having neurones in vitro working for up to six weeks, hence as long as a neurone can be maintained functional when cultivated in vitro.

The goal is to have a better way to study neurones as well as to study the effect of drugs on neurones.

In the long term these nano-arrays could be used as brain computer  interface, implanted directly in the brain. This is quite down the lane, of course, but it is more a matter of “when” then of “if”.

The research has been published in an article on NanoLetters.

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the New Initiative Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He is a member of the IEEE in 2050 Ad Hoc Committee. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.