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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Are You Ready for Workplace Brain Scanning?

Extracting and using brain data will make workers happier and more productive, backers say

11 min read
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A photo collage showing a man wearing a eeg headset while looking at a computer screen.
Nadia Radic
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Get ready: Neurotechnology is coming to the workplace. Neural sensors are now reliable and affordable enough to support commercial pilot projects that extract productivity-enhancing data from workers’ brains. These projects aren’t confined to specialized workplaces; they’re also happening in offices, factories, farms, and airports. The companies and people behind these neurotech devices are certain that they will improve our lives. But there are serious questions about whether work should be organized around certain functions of the brain, rather than the person as a whole.

To be clear, the kind of neurotech that’s currently available is nowhere close to reading minds. Sensors detect electrical activity across different areas of the brain, and the patterns in that activity can be broadly correlated with different feelings or physiological responses, such as stress, focus, or a reaction to external stimuli. These data can be exploited to make workers more efficient—and, proponents of the technology say, to make them happier. Two of the most interesting innovators in this field are the Israel-based startup InnerEye, which aims to give workers superhuman abilities, and Emotiv, a Silicon Valley neurotech company that’s bringing a brain-tracking wearable to office workers, including those working remotely.

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