Injectable Optoelectronics for Brain Control

Device lets neuroscientists perform optogenetics experiments wirelessly

4 min read
Injectable Optoelectronics for Brain Control
Photo: Photos: University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign and Washington University-St. Louis

Implantable Optoelectronics: A flexible system that includes electrodes, LEDs, photodetectors, and a temperature sensor were designed to be implanted in an animal\u2019s brain and wirelessly controlled via an RF receiver affixed to the animal\u2019s skull.Implantable Optoelectronics: A flexible system that includes electrodes, LEDs, photodetectors, and a temperature sensor were designed to be implanted in an animal’s brain and wirelessly controlled via an RF receiver affixed to the animal’s skull.Photo: University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign and Washington University-St. Louis

Optogenetics, a recently developed technique that uses light to map and control brain activity, requires the genetic modification of an animal’s brain cells and the insertion of optical fibers and electrical wire into its brain. The bulky wires and fibers emerge from the skull, hampering the animal’s movement and making it difficult to perform certain experiments that could lead to breakthroughs for Parkinson’s disease, addiction, depression, and spinal cord injuries.

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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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