What are BMIs?
Imagine being able to control a computer with just your brain. Or finally being able to move your arm after years of paralysis. Sounds like science fiction right?
Well these are just some of the opportunities that brain-machine interfaces (BMIs) bring. For those of you who don’t know, BMIs are direct pathways of communication between an enhanced brain and a machine/computer. So now that we know about BMIs, let’s talk about one of the latest advancements in this field: neural dust.
Neural dust? What’s that?
Don’t worry, it’s not like dust accumulated in your brain or some kind of little powder that does stuff to your neurons (although that’d be cool).
Neural dust is a new alternative to electroencephalograms (EEGs), which allows for us to study, monitor or even control the nerves and muscles while remotely monitoring neural activity.
It was created by scientists at the University of California, Berkeley and was meant to be a better, smaller, more improved version of EEGs. Each of the neural dust motes are roughly the size of a grain of salt, which is tiny compared to the large electrodes that were previously used. Essentially, these little specks can let you do things such as control a computer with your brain. Crazy right?
So how do these tiny little devices work?
Well, to begin, there are two main components to allow neural dust to work. An ultrasonic interrogator (transmitter) and the neural dust (receiver). A signal generator as well as amplifying stages help produce power for the ultrasonic transmitter so that it can launch an ultrasonic wave. This wave then penetrates the brain tissue and a small portion of that energy is harvested by the neural dust.
There are two main types of neural dusts: active nodes and passive nodes. Active nodes consist of a piezoelectric crystal which helps to recover power in order for it to activate CMOS electronics for data pre-processing, encoding, and transmission. Essentially, they help convert the mechanical power from the ultrasonic pulses into electrical power.
Passive nodes, on the other hand, reflect these ultrasonic pulses back to the interrogator. This method is called “backscatter communication” and was adopted from RFID. In backscatter communication, the piezoelectric crystal detects the neuronal signal from its location in the extracellular space and the ultrasound energy that is reflected back to the interrogator would be made in a way to help communicate the activity.
Overall, neural dust is a big step up from EEGs, since they allow for higher spatial resolution, decreased attenuation in the tissue, higher penetration depths, greater scaling, and a reduced amount of unwanted energy being distributed into your body. But with all these benefits, what can we do with neural dust?
There are three main areas in which we can apply neural dust technology:
- Neural prosthesis
- Epilepsy treatments
Neural dust can really help advance the field of neural prosthesis, finally allowing for finer, more precise movements of various prosthetics while being controlled by the patient’s mind. This technology has already been developed, yet now, thanks to the preciseness of neural dust and the decreased amount of health risks (see below), neural prosthesis is more patient-friendly than ever before! It’s literally life changing…
Neural dust is also a better alternative to any of the other electrostimulation methods. Implanted electrodes, which was what was previously used, have high risks of infection and scarring since they have to be connected to wires. Now, however, with wireless neural dust, the health risks are diminishing. As a result, we can now begin to treat things such as sleep apnea or allow for better bladder control in paraplegics-all thanks to this revolutionary technology.
Lastly, neural dust provides us with a better solution to help treat people with epilepsy. The dust would stimulate the brain and stop seizures from occurring by providing seizure halting electrical stimulation based on brain patterns which indicate that a seizure is about to happen. Although this isn’t a new technique, scientists are trying to make neural dust which can last for a lifespan, allowing for this type of prevention of seizures to be available for as long as that person’s alive.
All in all, neural dust is crazy. And these are just some of the many applications for it. Despite the fact that I’ve been doing so much research on neural dust and BMIs, I still can’t seem to wrap my head around the fact that this technology is basically here. And with scientists working on making neural dust last a lifetime, it’s hard to imagine what we won’t be able to do in the future. Who knows, maybe in ten years we’ll finally be able to turn on a TV just by thinking of the remote! (So much for trying to stay fit…)
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