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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A New Treatment for Arthritis: Vagus-Nerve Stimulation

Studies will soon show whether electroceuticals outperform pharmaceuticals

5 min read
A tablet computer, a smartphone, a grey belt with white stripes, a grey disc, and a small silver rectangle with a wire curled beside it.

Galvani’s system includes a nerve stimulator that attaches to the splenic nerve.

Galvani Bioelectronics

Monique Robroek once had such crippling arthritis that, even with the best available medications, she struggled to walk across a room. But thanks to an electronic implant fitted under her skin, she managed to wean herself off all her drugs and live pain-free for nearly a decade—until recently, when a viral illness made her rheumatoid arthritis (RA) flare up again.

This article is part of our special report Top Tech 2023.

Robroek’s long remission is “very impressive” and rare among patients with RA, says her doctor Frieda Koopman, a rheumatologist at Amsterdam UMC, in the Netherlands. Robroek’s experience highlights the immense potential of so-called bioelectronic medicine, also known as electroceuticals, an emerging field of treatment for diseases that have traditionally been managed with pharmaceuticals alone.

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