Flexible Scanner

A new kind of non-invasive brain scanner uses ultra-thin material to record high-resolution maps of brain activity, a new study reports.

The scandalous new ultrathin array bares all.

The scanner is composed of an array of 720 transistors conducting activity from 360 electrodes – and it’s thin and flexible enough to cling to the surface of the brain, or even slip inside the brain’s fissures (folds), or between lobes. Needless to say, this will let researchers peek at the brain’s inner workings with an unprecedented degree of detail.

Brain scanning has come a long way since the first electroencephalograms (EEGs) began recording electrical activity from the scalp in the late 1800s. Nowadays, between advanced deep-scanning technologies like fMRI and precise implantable microelectrode arrays (MEAs), neuroscientists are getting ever-clearer glimpses of what goes on inside our heads. Even so, fMRI scanners are bulky and expensive; and MEAs require many separate wires.

But now, as the journal Nature Neuroscience reports, a team led by the University of Pennsylvania’s Brian Litt has created an electrode array composed of a single flexible sheet, which can monitor electrical activity deep within the brain at high resolutions – and non-invasively, to boot.

In short, this interface overcomes several longstanding problems in brain-scanning technology with one fell swoop:

We developed new devices that integrate ultrathin and flexible silicon nanomembrane transistors into the electrode array, enabling new dense arrays of thousands of amplified and multiplexed sensors that are connected using fewer wires.

The team has already used the new devices to record some high-resolution scans, and the results speak for themselves:

We used this system to record spatial properties of cat brain activity in vivo, including sleep spindles, single-trial visual evoked responses and electrographic seizures. We found that seizures may manifest as recurrent spiral waves that propagate in the neocortex.

In other words, on one of their very first test runs, the team discovered a new pattern underlying the spread of seizures. Not bad for a start, eh?

But this, of course, is only the beginning. If all goes as planned, this technology will soon be helping doctors and researchers around the world diagnose brain disorders more quickly and accurately than ever before.

I don’t know about you, but it’s already sparking plenty of ideas in my mind.

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