A clear droplet sits on a blue PCB with gold traces. A syringe with a drop of clear liquid sits above the droplet.

Grow Your Own Brain Electrodes

Bioelectronics has been making great strides in recent years, but interfacing rigid electrical components with biological systems that are anything but can prove tricky. Researchers at the Laboratory for Organic Electronics (LOE) have found a way to bridge the gap with conductive gels. (via Linköping University)

Outside the body, these gels are non-conductive, but when injected into a living animal, the combination of gel and the body’s metabolites creates a conductive electrode that can move with the tissue. This is accompanied by a nifty change in color which makes it easy for researchers to see if the electrode has formed properly.

Side-by-side images of a zebrafish tail. Both say "Injected gel with LOx:HRP" at the top with an arrow going to the upper part of the tail structure. The left says "t=0 min" and "Injected with gel GOx:HRP" along the bottom with an arrow going to the lower part of the tail structure. The tail shows darkening in the later image due to formation of bioelectrodes.

Applications for the technology include better biological sensors and enhanced capabilities for future brain-controlled interfaces. The study was done on zebrafish and medicinal leeches, so it will be awhile before you can pick up a syringe of this stuff at your local computer store, but it still offers a tantalizing glimpse of the future.

We’ve covered a few different brain electrodes here before including MIT’s 3D printed version and stentrodes.

Stentrodes: A Way To Insert Brain Electrodes Without Invasive Surgery

When we think of brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) that use electrodes, we usually think of Utah arrays that are placed directly on the brain during open brain surgery, or with thin electrodes spliced into the exposed brain as postulated by Neuralink. While Utah arrays and kin as a practical concept date back to the 1980s, a more recent concept called Stentrodes – for stent-electrode array – seeks to do away with the need for invasive brain surgery.

As the name suggests, this approach uses stents that are inserted via the blood vessels, where they are expanded and thus firmly placed inside a blood vessel inside the brain. Since each of these stents also features an electrode array, these can be used to record neural activity in nearby neural clusters, as well as induce activity through electrical stimulation.

Due to the fact that stents are already commonly used by themselves in the brain’s blood vessels, and the relatively benign nature of these electrode arrays, human trials have already been approved in 2018 by an ethics committee in Australia. Despite lingering concerns about the achievable resolution and performance of this approach, it may offer hope to millions of people suffering from paralysis and other conditions.

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Brain-Computer Interfaces: Separating Fact From Fiction On Musk’s Brain Implant Claims

When it comes to something as futuristic-sounding as brain-computer interfaces (BCI), our collective minds tend to zip straight to scenes from countless movies, comics, and other works of science-fiction (including more dystopian scenarios). Our mind’s eye fills with everything from the Borg and neural interfaces of Star Trek, to the neural recording devices with parent-controlled blocking features from Black Mirror, and of course the enslavement of the human race by machines in The Matrix.

And now there’s this Elon Musk guy, proclaiming that he’ll be wiring up people’s brains to computers starting next year, as part of this other company of his: Neuralink. Here the promises and imaginings are truly straight from the realm of sci-fi, ranging from ‘reading and writing’ to the brain, curing brain diseases and merging human minds with artificial intelligence. How much of this is just investor speak? Please join us as we take a look at BCIs, neuroprosthetics and what we can expect of these technologies in the coming years.

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Move A Robotic Hand With Your Nerve Impulses

Many of us will have seen robotics or prosthetics operated by the electrical impulses detected from a person’s nerves, or their brain. In one form or another they are a staple of both mass-market technology news coverage and science fiction.

The point the TV journalists and the sci-fi authors fail to address though is this: how does it work? On a simple level they might say that the signal from an individual nerve is picked up just as though it were a wire in a loom, and sent to the prosthetic. But that’s a for-the-children explanation which is rather evidently not possible with a few electrodes on the skin. How do they really do it?

A project from [Bruce Land]’s Cornell University students [Michael Haidar], [Jason Hwang], and [Srikrishnaa Vadivel] seeks to answer that question. They’ve built an interface that allows them to control a robotic hand using signals gathered from electrodes placed on their forearms. And their write-up is a fascinating read, for within that project lie a multitude of challenges, of which the hand itself is only a minor one that they solved with an off-the-shelf kit.

The interface itself had to solve the problem of picking up the extremely weak nerve impulses while simultaneously avoiding interference from mains hum and fluorescent lights. They go into detail about their filter design, and their use of isolated power supplies to reduce this noise as much as possible.

Even with the perfect interface though they still have to train their software to identify different finger movements. Plotting the readings from their two electrodes as axes of a graph, they were able to map graph regions corresponding to individual muscles. Finally, the answer that displaces the for-the-children explanation.

There are several videos linked from their write-up, but the one we’re leaving you with below is a test performed in a low-noise environment. They found their lab had so much noise that they couldn’t reliably demonstrate all fingers moving, and we think it would be unfair to show you anything but their most successful demo. But it’s also worth remembering how hard it was to get there.

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