They are working to put wires into my brain

Pairs of carbon nanotube fibers have been tested for potential use as implantable electrodes to treat patients with neurological disorders like Parkinson's disease. The fibers invented at Rice University proved to be far better than metallic wires now used to stimulate neurons in the brain. Credit: Rice University, photo courtesy of the Pasquali Lab

Researchers at Rice University are exploring the use of carbon nanotubes fibres as wires to embed in our brains.

So far stimulation of brain areas and detection of electrical activity in a specific brain area makes use of tiny electrical wires. Their thinness, however, is gross when compared to the size of neurones, they axons and dendrites. Hence the stimulation is affecting thousands of neurones and their connections. Making those wires even thinner is not possible since they become brittle and breaks down. Not so with carbon nanotubes fibres. They can have a size that compares to the ones of axons and neurones so that, in principle, one might target single neurones. In practice this is not possible (today) since you would need to locate that neurone and reach it with the fibre.  However, reaching neuronal circuits, such as the ones controlling movement, mood and bodily function is feasible.

At Rice they have demonstrated the bio-compatibility of these carbon nanotubes fibres. Additionally, these fibres support bi-directional communications so that it becomes possible to provide an electrical stimulation (activation or depression of a neural circuit) and measure the effects by monitoring the induced electrical activity at neural circuit level.

This opens up amazing opportunities for therapies, as example in the Parkinson disease. We are already using deep brain stimulation and the availability of these carbon nanotubes fibres can be a significant step forward. Couple this with the increased understanding of brain connectivity and functions that is being derived from big endeavour like the Connectomics (US) and The Human Brain (EU) projects  and you see that we are really on the brink of a new era in brain medicine.

Also, and this might be more problematic, these advances make brain-machine interfaces more powerful potentially opening up a can of worm, as I pointed out in previous posts. As always, the two sides of the technology coin are there, impossible to separate one from the other.  The difference will be not in the technology but in its use and that's up to all of us.

Author - Roberto Saracco

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