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Tiny ‘neural dust’ sensors may help scientists monitor your nerves in real time

The burgeoning field of bioelectronic medicine has been buzzing recently with Google affiliate Verily (previously Google Life Sciences) and medical company GlaxoSmithKline joining forces in a $715 million deal to launch Galvani Bioelectronics. By tapping into our bodies’ natural electrical signals, these tiny, implantable devices have the potential to support a new class of therapies known as “electroceuticals.”

A team of engineers from UC Berkeley have made a breakthrough in the emerging field by creating tiny, wireless sensors they’ve called “ultrasonic neural dust,” which provide biometric information in real time. They say this is the first device of its kind to monitor neural activity in living animals. The minimally invasive devices may help treat disorders ranging from inflammation to epilepsy. A report detailing their study was published last week in the journal Neuron.

“This is the first time someone has used ultrasound as a method of powering and communicating with extremely small implantable systems,” one of the paper’s authors, Donjon Seo, told Scientific American. “This opens up a host of applications in terms of embodied telemetry: being able to put something super-tiny, super-deep in the body, which you can park next to a nerve, organ, muscle or gastrointestinal tract, and read data out wirelessly.”

Ryan Neely
Ryan Neely

To test the “neural dust,” the researchers implanted them into the muscles and surrounding nerves of rats, and transmitted ultrasound to the implanted devices, which returned information about the nerves’ electrical signals. Ultrasound also provides a power source, enabling the researchers to get rid of batteries and wires. And, although not unnoticeable in rats, the sand-grain-sized devices would be exceptionally small in humans.

“The original goal of the neural dust project was to imagine the next generation of brain-machine interfaces, and to make it a viable clinical technology,” neuroscience graduate student Ryan Neely said in a press release. “If a paraplegic wants to control a computer or a robotic arm, you would just implant this electrode in the brain and it would last essentially a lifetime.”

In the future, the engineers hope to design the device so that it can be implanted in the brain and detect non-electrical signals, including data on oxygen and hormone levels.

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