Earlier this week, we discussed the commercialization of neural interface chips at the University of Utah. Meanwhile, at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, researchers are innovating in neuroscience on an even smaller scale. A new, slimmer electrode allows for the more precise studying of individual neurons and promises insight on the workings of the mind based on the interactions between neurons and the brain.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and Nicholas Rougier
The purpose of putting electrodes near neurons is to pick up their electrical activity. Neurons communicate with each other by firing short electrical signals, which electrodes excel at receiving. A common problem with electrodes placed near neurons is that they are simply too big. Often, they will crowd or push neurons around, trigger the body’s immune system to destroy them, or pick up a disorderly mixture of signals from nearby neurons. To avoid these problems, a University of Michigan team led by Daryl Kipke, PhD., used the intuitive solution of creating a smaller electrode. Their new model is ten times thinner than its competitors at seven microns in diameter, or 0.007 millimeters.
This decrease in volume is proving to be quite an advantage for the Ann Arbor electrode. The unobtrusive device slips in near a single neuron without disrupting any of its surroundings. Its carbon-fiber body is highly conductible, which allows it to return a sharp, clear record of the activity of that single neuron. The electrode was tested in the brain of a rat to see if it would be accepted, with exceptional results. During the six weeks of testing, the rat’s immune system became acclimatized to the slim intruder. This is especially promising when it comes to long-term neuron monitoring or even becoming used to controlling a prosthetic limb.
Kipke, left, a professor of biomedical engineering and the principal investigator at the university’s Center for Neural Communication Technology, sees several applications for the thinner electrode. For one, listening to single neurons is crucial to understanding how neurons communicate with each other and move through the brain. Also, the longevity of these electrodes makes them good candidates for devices made to stay in the body for a long time. In Kipke’s own words from a University of Michigan article,
“The results strongly suggest that creating feasible electrode arrays at these small dimensions is a viable path forward for making longer-lasting devices,”
Some of these devices include those responsible controlling prosthetic limbs like a natural limb without the body rejecting or inhibiting motion and precision. As we said on Wednesday, we’re not at the point of cyborgs or Iron Man-style suits just yet, but technology is certainly bringing them closer to reality.
In other exciting U-M News, Ann Arbor ranks first once again in research and development spending among the nation’s public universities. Spending increased from the previous fiscal year by eight percent, totaling at $1.28 billion. To see more funding information for the University of Michigan, click here:
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