Brain research is intimately entwined with advances in the “neurotechnologies” that not only help us study the brain’s inner workings, but also transform the ways we can interact with and influence it.
For example, researchers at the University of California Berkeley recently published the first in-animal trials of what they called “neural dust” ? implanted millimeter-sized sensors. They inserted the sensors in the nerves and muscles of rats, showing that these miniature wirelessly powered and connected sensors can monitor neural activity. The long-term aim, though, is to introduce thousands of neural dust particles into human brains.
The UC Berkeley sensors are still relatively large, on par with a coarse piece of sand, and just report on what’s happening around them. Yet advances in nanoscale fabrication are likely to enable their further miniaturization. (The researchers estimate they could be made thinner than a human hair.) And in the future, combining them with technologies like optogenetics ? using light to stimulate genetically modified neurons ? could enable wireless, localized brain interrogation and control.
Used in this way, future generations of neural dust could transform how chronic neurological disorders are managed. They could also enable hardwired brain-computer interfaces (the original motivation behind this research), or even be used to enhance cognitive ability and modify behavior.
In 2013, President Obama launched the multi-year, multi-million dollar U.S. BRAIN Initiative (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies). The same year, the European Commission launched the Human Brain Project, focusing on advancing brain research, cognitive neuroscience and brain-inspired computing. There are also active brain research initiatives in China, Japan, Korea, Latin America, Israel, Switzerland, Canada and even Cuba.
Together, these represent an emerging and globally coordinated effort to not only better understand how the brain works, but to find new ways of controlling and enhancing it (in particular in disease treatment and prevention); to interface with it; and to build computers and other artificial systems that are inspired by it.
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