Nature: A simple injection is now all it takes to wire up a brain. A diverse team of physicists, neuroscientists and chemists has implanted mouse brains with a rolled-up, silky mesh studded with tiny electronic devices, and shown that it unfurls to spy on and stimulate individual neurons. The implant has the potential to unravel the workings of the mammalian brain in unprecedented detail.
think it’s great, a very creative new approach to the problem of
recording from large number of neurons in the brain,” says Rafael Yuste,
director of the Neurotechnology Center at Columbia University in New
York, who was not involved in the work.
eventually shown to be safe, the soft mesh might even be used in humans
to treat conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, says Charles Lieber, a
chemist at Harvard University on Cambridge, Massachusetts, who led the
team. The work was published in Nature Nanotechnology on 8 June1.
still do not understand how the activities of individual brain cells
translate to higher cognitive powers such as perception and emotion. The
problem has spurred a hunt for technologies that will allow scientists
to study thousands, or ideally millions, of neurons at once, but the use
of brain implants is currently limited by several disadvantages. So
far, even the best technologies have been composed of relatively rigid
electronics that act like sandpaper on delicate neurons. They also
struggle to track the same neuron over a long period, because individual
cells move when an animal breathes or its heart beats.
Harvard team solved these problems by using a mesh of conductive
polymer threads with either nanoscale electrodes or transistors attached
at their intersections. Each strand is as soft as silk and as flexible
as brain tissue itself. Free space makes up 95% of the mesh, allowing
cells to arrange themselves around it.
In 2012, the team showed2
that living cells grown in a dish can be coaxed to grow around these
flexible scaffolds and meld with them, but this ‘cyborg’ tissue was
created outside a living body. “The problem is, how do you get that into
an existing brain?” says Lieber.
answer was to tightly roll up a 2D mesh a few centimetres wide and then
use a needle just 100 micrometres in diameter to inject it directly into
a target region through a hole in the top of the skull. The mesh
unrolls to fill any small cavities and mingles with the tissue (see ‘Bugging the brain’). Nanowires that poke out can be connected to a computer to take recordings and stimulate cells.
next steps will be to implant larger meshes containing hundreds of
devices, with different kinds of sensors, and to record activity in mice
that are awake, either by fixing their heads in place, or by developing
wireless technologies that would record from neurons as the animals
moved freely. The team would also like to inject the device into the
brains of newborn mice, where it would unfold further as the brain grew,
and to add hairpin-shaped nanowire probes to the mesh to record
electrical activity inside and outside cells.
When Lieber presented the work at a conference in 2014, it “left a few of us with our jaws dropping”, says Yuste.
is huge potential for techniques that can study the activity of large
numbers of neurons for a long period of time with only minimal damage,
says Jens Schouenborg, head of the Neuronano Research Centre at Lund
University in Sweden, who has developed a gelatin-based ‘needle’ for
delivering electrodes to the brain3.
But he remains sceptical of this technique: “I would like to see more
evidence of the implant’s long-term compatibility with the body,” he
says. Rigorous testing would be needed before such a device could be
implanted in people. But, says Lieber, it could potentially treat brain
damage caused by a stroke, as well as Parkinson’s disease.
team is not funded by the US government’s US$4.5-billion Brain
Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN)
initiative, launched in 2013, but the work points to the power of that
effort’s multidisciplinary approach, says Yuste, who was an early
proponent of the BRAIN initiative. Bringing physical scientists into
neuroscience, he says, could help to “break through the major
experimental and theoretical challenges that we have to conquer in order
to understand how the brain works”.