A sensors network in our body

A bioelectronic sensor, smaller than a grain of rice, called neural dust. Credits: Berkeley University

Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, have announced the development of a tiny wireless sensor (a mote), one cubic mm, that can be implanted in the body to monitor electrical signals flowing on a specific nerve. 

So far the mote has been experimented on mice, and it is now targeting to move experimentation onto humans. 

They have called them "neural dust motes" and the aim is to further reduce their size to 50µm (that is a decrease in volume by a factor of 8,000). At this point it would be possible to introduce them inside the brain to monitor specific neural circuits activities.

The motes receive the required power from outside the body through ultrasounds that generate a vibration that in turns is converted in electricity, sufficient to power the mote to harvest data. 

Really intriguing the mechanisms devised for having the mote communicating the data to the outside. The ultrasound bean that is used to power the mote is also reflected, it bounces back, and the reflection is dependent on the data that have been harvested, so the external receiver by analysing the minute changes in the reflection can acquire the data.  This allows for minimal usage of power. Quite ingenious!

The motes can be used to monitor nerves activity as well as muscles activity. Researchers are also studying the possibility to have modified motes sensing chemicals, like glucose. Their idea is to make possible the creation of monitoring networks embedded in our body that can sense local conditions and related them through the network to a monitoring point in charge for raising alarms if required or just to provide a continuous check on our "well-being".

This vision is in synch with a revolution in health care, as expected in the next decade, where more and more attention will be paid to proactive monitoring to prevent pathologies rather than curing them.

There is plenty of ethical issues "embedded" in this vision and this is part of the activity recently launched by the IEEE FDC in its new Symbiotic Autonomous Machine Initiative, as well as the focus of the EIT Digital area Digital Health.

Author - Roberto Saracco

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