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Berkeley scientists have 'smart dust' on the brain

California researchers theorize that tiny electronic sensors the size of dust particles could be used in future brain studies.

An ultrasonic interrogator is placed under the skull, while independent neural dust sensing nodes are sprinkled throughout the cortex.
University of California, Berkeley

A variety of imaging advancements in recent years is making it possible to study the brain in real time -- techniques such as positron emission tomography and magnetic resonance imaging. These methods are giving us insights into the way the brain behaves, but they're not without shortcomings, ranging from their invasive nature to less-than-stellar image resolution.

Scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, are investigating a completely novel approach to studying the brain in real time: smart dust.

That's right. Dust.

In a paper titled Neural Dust: An Ultrasonic, Low Power Solution for Chronic Brain-Machine Interfaces, the researchers unveiled an approach that surely will have Orwell enthusiasts' skin crawling. The Berkeley scientists report that by sprinkling tiny electronic sensors the size of dust particles -- so-called neural dust -- onto the cerebral cortex, they could use ultrasound to both power and remotely control those particles. Each of these particles would consist of CMOS circuits and sensors that would measure the electrical activity of nearby neurons. The data would be collected and stored outside the body.

To be clear, the paper is only theoretical and exploratory; the dust doesn't exist at this time. The process of creating 100-micrometer particles that can send and receive signals in the body's noisy and warm environment is a major hurdle to overcome. The scientists also would need to link the sensors to a piezoelectric system, which converts ultrasound to electronic signals and back in an efficient manner. Of course, the system would need to operate on a power high enough to generate the ultrasound but low enough so as not to fry the brain.

And this doesn't even get into how the heck all that dust is going to be sprinkled onto the cortex -- though the researchers suggest that they could fabricate the particles on the tips of a fine wire that then would be dipped into the cortex, which -- dust or not -- still sounds invasive to me.

But in spite of some sizable hurdles, smart dust has the potential to provide the framework for a portable, low-power, high-resolution brain monitor. And it's got to be a thrilling notion for the conspiracy theorists out there, who can move on from worrying about blue pills versus red pills to fearing the very air we breathe.

(Via MIT Technology Review)