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Probing inside the brain

A silicon based nanoprobe, thinner than a human hair, embedding 960 sensing points able to detect electrical activities in single neurones. Credit: Howard Hughes Medical Institute

Science progresses thanks to data. Yes, ideas and imagination play and important role but these are stimulated by observational data ad have to be confirmed by observational data.

The problem we face in unraveling the brain is its huge complexity, the amazing connectivity among its different components making it extremely difficult to simplify the problem. As you are focussing on a part, to decrease the number of factors you lose the overall picture and the brain IS the overall picture. Feelings, consciousness even finely tuning movements of a single finger cannot be reduced to a specific area of the brain.

Hence the need to capture as many data as possible at the same time (this is also a difficult endeavour, the definition of time windows, since something is happens because neurons are firing in synch, something because they fire in sequence and something because of what happened in the past!) pinpointing where these data are generated.

EEG provides a global recording of electrical activity in the brain, resulting from billions and billions of neurones activity. It helps little in the understanding of what is really going on, and where.

Researchers have created minimally invasive probes to harvest more localised electrical activity, sensors arrays that can be placed on the surface of the brain and a few probes, needle like, that can be inserted in the brain to capture electrical activity inside it.

These needle like probes have only a few sensing points because of the difficulty of embedding them in a tiny probe and transporting the signals.

This is where this article reporting on the results of an international team from  HHMI’s Janelia Research Campus, the Allen Institute for Brain Science, and University College London worked with engineers at IMEC  comes in.

Researchers have created a neuropixels probe that is as thin, and even thinner than probes used so far, 70×20 µm, thinner than a human hair, embedding 960 sensors and most crucially the capability to process locally the harvested data decreasing the number of wires that would be needed to transport them to the point of processing.

The neuropixels probe is sufficiently long to reach any part of a rodent brain allowing scientists to get a map of what is happening in different parts of the brain responding to a specific stimulus. There are now some 400 probes being used in various labs around the world as prototypes. Commercially they should become available in the first part of 2018.

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 Industry Advisory Board within the Future Directions Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. 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.