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Scientists Create Wireless Neural Dust to Monitor Health and Treat Disorders

Researchers create tiny implants that promise new medical treatments via breakthrough brain-machine interaction.
Wireless "Neural dust" implants are smaller than a grain of rice.

Would you want to have precise scientific knowledge about what’s going on with your body at any given moment, catching any diseases early on? Or maybe you need help losing weight or treating a brain disorder? Perhaps, simply, you’ve already accepted that one day you’ll become a cyborg. You might not have to wait too much longer as science is boldly marching into science fiction territory, with researchers unveiling new wireless implants or “neural dust motes” that will lead to next-level interfacing between the brain and machines.

Scientists from the University of California at Berkeley created tiny implants that are about 3 millimeters long, 1 millimeter high, and almost a millimeter thick. That’s smaller than a grain of rice. 

Each such “mote” has a piezoelectric crystal that can convert power from ultrasonic pulses outside the body into electrical power. The crystals in the mote can reflect some of the pulses, while electronics inside the neural dust can alter the pulses, which basically means they can transmit the collected data. Scientists already tried this out on rats and found that the implanted motes were able to record and transmit electrical data.

What is the upshot of this new tech? Previously, researchers had to rely on wired implants. Doing it wirelessly opens up a way to avoid inflaming tissue and otherwise bothering the body.

This ingenious approach was funded by a DARPA bioengineer and neuroscientist Doug Weber, who said to Popular Sciencethat:

“I was really skeptical of this concept at first, since it was so out of the box. But it’s a really elegant approach, and it works pretty well. This is a breakthrough technology that really changes what’s possible in terms of sensing and stimulating nerve activity, especially nerves deep inside the body.”

The goal now is to shrink these neural dust motes even more, to about 50 microns wide, which is about half the width of an average human hair. That will make it even easier for the body to withstand the implants.

Researchers are also working on making the motes electrically stimulate the body. The objective is to engineer motes that can not only monitor a person’s health, but be able to administer electroceutical therapies that can treat brain disorders like epilepsy or even work on appetite suppression. 

Another long-term goal is to come up with more biocompatible materials for packaging the neural dust motes and to use them in the brain, the spinal cord and other places in the body.

Michel Maharbiz, an electric engineer who participated in the study, explained:

“In the long term, we want to be able to send energy to and communicate with implants all over the body, to record data from a variety of organs in many different ways, maybe even report on the conditions of tumors or cancer therapies.”

You can read the full paper here, in the journal Neuron.


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