Monitoring the brain at neurone level

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is developing a neural measurement and manipulation system — an advanced electronics system to monitor and modulate neurons — that will be packed with more than 1,000 tiny electrodes embedded in different areas of the brain to record and stimulate neural circuitry. Credit: LLNL

The quest for understanding the brain is progressing along several directions, from the mapping of connections (the Connectome projects) to the visualisation of a living brain at work. This latter is clearly of most interest but it is also facing a staggering difficulty: looking at the 100 billion neurones and their trillions of connections as they actually work is beyond present and future (50 years at least -my estimate) capability of technology. 

However scientists have been making interesting progress in visualising the working brain (the most famous - so far - visualisation of neurones at work is probably the one of the zebra fish brain) and a new science has been founded: optogenetics. A way to make active neurones to light up and also a way to influence neurones with beams of light by using a light sensitive protein that binds to the neurone.

Measuring electrical activity of neurones by implanting sensors is also another approach but so far the number of sensors that could be implanted were few, too few actually to derive any significant information at neurone level. In fact, a single sensor capture the electrical activity of several nearby neurones and cannot pinpoint any single one.

Now researchers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory have received a grant from the US National Institute of Health to develop an array of sensors that can detect activities in a thousands points of the brain (to be upgraded to 10,000 in subsequent releases). With this number it becomes possibile to identify networks activation in the brain and also pinpoint with greater accuracy which neurones are involved.

The LLNL is being asked to develop the sensors arrays in a way that they are compatible with the brain so that they do not interfere with its activity and can be worn for long periods of time. The data will be processed by a special chip, developed by Intan a company that specialised in micro chips for processing sensors data.

Even with the most advanced releases we would still be far from a real monitoring of brains neurones but still it is a big step towards getting more information on the actual activities in a living brain.

Author - Roberto Saracco

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