Magnetic Hammer Drives Tiny Medical Robot Through Brain Tissue

This millirobot has already probed a goat brain, and may someday maneuver through a human

4 min read
Photo: University of Houston
Hammer Away: A prototype containing a steel bead rests in front of two magnetic coils.
Photo: University of Houston

A tiny robot that jackhammers its way through the body sounds like the stuff of science fiction nightmares. But such a robot exists, and it could play an important role in the future of medicine.

A new study on the concept shows that millimeter-scale robots (known as millirobots) can penetrate lamb and goat brain tissue by responding to changes in the magnetic field generated by hospital medical scanners. That achievement could pave the way for fantastic voyages of biomedical discovery.

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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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