4 Steps to Turn “Neural Dust” Into a Medical Reality

Tiny ultrasound-powered motes could record and adjust nerve activity

4 min read
Photo: Ryan Neely
You Sound Nervous: This tiny sensor, attached to a rat’s nerve, is powered by ultrasound. Nerve signals change the way the device reflects ultrasound, and an external sensor can hear the change.
Photo: Ryan Neely

Mainstream medicine is making increasing use of electronics inside the body, deploying implanted gadgets both to measure internal conditions and to provide stimulating jolts of electricity to nerves and muscles. But turning a human into a proper cyborg will require many minuscule devices that can be scattered throughout the body. As a step toward that goal, a team of bioengineers has built speck-size wireless electrodes that can be affixed directly to nerves—and that may one day be nestled inside the brain.

The engineers from the University of California, Berkeley, implanted one mote of what they call “neural dust” inside an anesthetized rat, and demonstrated that the electrode could record signals from the rat’s sciatic nerve and wirelessly transmit the information. This experiment was a proof of concept, says Jose Carmena, who co-led the research at UC Berkeley’s Center for Neural Engineering and Prostheses, where he is codirector. If the neural dust can be adapted for the human body and brain, doctors could have an intimate new interface with the human nervous system.

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Restoring Hearing With Beams of Light

Gene therapy and optoelectronics could radically upgrade hearing for millions of people

13 min read
A computer graphic shows a gray structure that’s curled like a snail’s shell. A big purple line runs through it. Many clusters of smaller red lines are scattered throughout the curled structure.

Human hearing depends on the cochlea, a snail-shaped structure in the inner ear. A new kind of cochlear implant for people with disabling hearing loss would use beams of light to stimulate the cochlear nerve.

Lakshay Khurana and Daniel Keppeler
Blue

There’s a popular misconception that cochlear implants restore natural hearing. In fact, these marvels of engineering give people a new kind of “electric hearing” that they must learn how to use.

Natural hearing results from vibrations hitting tiny structures called hair cells within the cochlea in the inner ear. A cochlear implant bypasses the damaged or dysfunctional parts of the ear and uses electrodes to directly stimulate the cochlear nerve, which sends signals to the brain. When my hearing-impaired patients have their cochlear implants turned on for the first time, they often report that voices sound flat and robotic and that background noises blur together and drown out voices. Although users can have many sessions with technicians to “tune” and adjust their implants’ settings to make sounds more pleasant and helpful, there’s a limit to what can be achieved with today’s technology.

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