Carbon Microthread Connects Brain to Machine

Carbon Microthread Connects Brain to Machine

With everybody constantly on their phones, the emergence of the Internet of Things and augmented reality, ubiquitous computing does not seem all that far-fetched anymore. That being so, the question arises how we will interface with our smart cars, our smart homes and our domestic robots? Will we hunch over tablets to control the sound and lighting systems in the house? Make exaggerated gestures to control our motion-sensing robot? Talk to our smart albeit inanimate car? Or will we take out the middle man and interface with our smart environment directly with our brain.

Researchers of the University of Pittsburg are aiming for the latter. They’ve created a ‘stealthy neural interface’, a brain implant functioning as a Brain-Computer Interface that is supposed to last for 70 years.

The BCI takes the form of an ultrathin electrode which –when implanted in the brain- records the electrical signals transmitted by neurons. The electrode converts the brain signals into machine language allowing the implantee to control devices solely with their minds.

The electrode consists of a carbon fiber thread. A conductive pad at the tip of the thread touches the surface of a single neuron to pick up its signals. The fiber is coated with a dielectric polymer to keep out signals from neighboring neurons.

Earlier experiments with intrusive BCIs have successfully enabled people to mind-control robotic limbs, like Cathy Hutchinson in the video below. However, one problem is the rapid deterioration of the implants. Over the course of years the body covers the alien material with scar tissue which ultimately stops the signal from being transmitted.

The Pittsburg team is hoping to develop a recording device that will survive in the brain for 70 years. One way to achieve that is the miniaturization of the device. With 7 micrometers in diameter the threads are 10 times smaller than any previous iteration of the technology and 100 times smaller than most implants being tested on animals today. The miniaturization makes the device so unobtrusive it’s left alone by the brain. Another improvement is the coating which is more body-friendly than other materials used in earlier experiments.

The implants are currently being tested on rats. But with neuroscience and BCI technologies rapidly progressing [PDF], the age of ubiquitous mind-controlled computing is beckoning.

The findings have been published in Nature Materials [paywalled].


Sources: NeuroGadget.com and TechnologyReview.com

Image: Illustration of neurons by Rebecca Redcliff

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    avatar Tessel Renzenbrink is the editor of TechTheFuture. I focus on disruptive trends in technology.