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Printing connections to the brain

Micro sensors 3D-printed to connect neurones to a computer … Sort of USB to the brain, still further down the lane. Image credit: University of Sheffield

The dream to connect a brain with a computer has roots in the past, first part of science fiction and more recently morphing into real science and technology. There are many aspects involved in this connection from sensing to understanding (brain to computer) and from coding to reaching the right spot in the brain (from computer to the brain). Of these two communication paths the most complex, and futuristic in the one from the computer to the brain where solutions are not even imagined in a global sense, like letting the brain know that Napoleon died on May 5th 1821.

Scientists are progressing with tiny steps and technology is also evolving in steps. As I just said there are many facets and aspects in brain to/from computer communications.  One of these aspects that applies both to the B>C and C>B connection is the interface at the neurone level.

There are different aspects in this interface, like:

  • bio-compatibility (you don’t want to harm the neurones, nor to change their “operation” just because there is an interface)
  • sensitivity (the capability to pick up the workings of single neurones, of groups of them and, much trickier, of those that are collaborating)
  • location (placing the interface where it is needed: this is probably one of the most difficult aspects in the interface first because it is difficult to pinpoint the neurones involved, second because it might be difficult to reach them, third because even if all the previous difficulties are overcome the brain is likely to change over time so that the interface may not be properly located as the brain evolves).

An international team of researchers, at the University of Sheffield, St Petersburg and Dresden, have created a “protocol” to design and produce brain interfaces, and more generally neural interfaces, that address part of the issues I listed.

The approach foresees the neurosurgeon to identify the characteristics of the interface (number of sensing points) and the intended location (hence the shape of the interface). This is translated by a software into commands to a 3D printer that uses bio-compatible inks to create the interface with the appropriate number of sensing points and shape (see as an example the one in the photo). The neurosurgeon can implant the interface and if needed can rapidly change the specifications leading to a new printed interface. The flexibility in the process and the biocompatibility are essential making it possible to implant the interface on the spinal cord, on the brain cortex and also on nerve terminations, as required. As the plasticity of the brain makes the interface ineffective after a certain time the neurosurgeon can design a new interface to meet the new requirements.

So far we are still in the domain of animal trials but it is, yet, another little step on the long and winding road that will get us to effective brain-computer communications.

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.