Toward next-generation brain-computer interface systems

A new kind of neural interface system that coordinates the activity of hundreds of tiny brain sensors could one day deepen understanding of the brain and lead to new medical therapies.

Credit: Brown University

Most current BCI systems use one or two sensors to sample up to a few hundred neurons, but neuroscientists are interested in systems that are able to gather data from much larger groups of brain cells. Now, a team of researchers has taken a key step toward a new concept for a future BCI system — one that employs a coordinated network of independent, wireless microscale neural sensors, each about the size of a grain of salt, to record and stimulate brain activity. The sensors, dubbed “neurograins,” independently record the electrical pulses made by firing neurons and send the signals wirelessly to a central hub, which coordinates and processes the signals.

The team first designed and simulated the electronics on a computer, and went through several fabrication iterations to develop operational chips. The second challenge was developing the body-external communications hub that receives signals from those tiny chips. The device is a thin patch, about the size of a thumb print, that attaches to the scalp outside the skull. It works like a miniature cellular phone tower, employing a network protocol to coordinate the signals from the neurograins, each of which has its own network address. The patch also supplies power wirelessly to the neurograins, which are designed to operate using a minimal amount of electricity.

The goal of this new study was to demonstrate that the system could record neural signals from a living brain — in this case, the brain of a rodent. The team placed 48 neurograins on the animal’s cerebral cortex, the outer layer of the brain, and successfully recorded characteristic neural signals associated with spontaneous brain activity.

Source (Brown University. “Toward next-generation brain-computer interface systems.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 12 August 2021.)

Original paper: Lee, J., Leung, V., Lee, A.H., Huang, J., Asbeck, P., Mercier, P.P., Shellhammer, S., Larson, L., Laiwalla, F. and Nurmikko, A., 2021. Neural recording and stimulation using wireless networks of microimplants. Nature Electronics, pp.1-11.