Transparent graphene to peer into our brains

A blue light shines through a transparent, implantable medical sensor onto a brain. The invention may help neural researchers better view brain activity. Credit: Justin Williams research group

An updated map of the Human Brain has been released in September 2016 by Allen Institute. It is the most detailed view available today. Credit: Allen Institute for Brain Science

The progress in the understanding of our brain, both at the morphological and physiological/functional level, is tied to the availability of ever more sophisticated tools and these are based on both hard (material) and soft (ICT) technologies.

This is why the news coming from the University of Wisconsin-Madison is so interesting. A team of researchers has invented a process to fabricate graphene based micro arrays that can be used for neural microelectrocorticography, basically tiny prongs that pick up electrical signals exchanged by neurones inside the brain. What is even more interesting is the claim that this fabrication process can be managed by young researchers/students that would be able to fabricate an array in 3 to 4 weeks. This ad hoc fabrication is important since you cannot have an array that fits any need of monitoring, rather one has to design the array for each specific "experiment" one wants to run and same goes for monitoring different brains, each one is unique and needs a specific array.

Graphene based arrays are transparent and support monitoring of electrophysiology, the imaging of neuronal networks and optogenetics (using light to activate neurones) and all of these at the same time. These results address the possibility of fabricating customised arrays and are likely to open up new doors for peering inside a brain and expand our knowledge. At the same time they are also a building block for a future in which we will be able to interact with neural networks/circuits (with optogenetics) to fix malfunctioning. We are starting to consider possibilities to "cure" ailments that have been beyond the reach of medicine and that have most of the time be related to the "soul" rather than to the brain.

Software, ICT in general, is going to play a very significant role in our quest to understand and interact with the brain and the progress in hardware technology will enable new software to be created. Something that is being addressed in the IEEE Brain Initiative.

Author - Roberto Saracco

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