A thin, flexible electrode developed at the University of Michigan is 10 times smaller than the nearest competition and could make long-term measurements of neural activity practical at last.
The new electrode ... is unobtrusive and even friendly in comparison. It is a thread of highly conductive carbon fiber, coated in plastic to block out signals from other neurons. The conductive gel pad at the end cozies up to soft cell membranes, and that close connection means the signals from brain cells come in much clearer.
"It's a huge step forward," Kotov said. "This electrode is about seven microns in diameter, or 0.007 millimeters, and its closest competitor is about 25 to 100 microns."
The gel even speaks the cell's language, he said. Electrical impulses travel through the brain by movements of ions, or atoms with electric charges, and the signals move through the gel in the same way. On the other side, the carbon fiber responds to the ions by moving electrons, effectively translating the brain's signal into the language of electronic devices.
While we won't see bionic arms or Iron Man-style suits on the market next year, Kipke is optimistic that prosthetic devices could start linking up with the brain in a decade or so.
"The surrounding work of developing very fine robotic control and clinical training protocols -- that work is progressing along its own trajectory," Kipke said.
Another breakthrough in machine/neuron integration is the successful connection of an infrared camera feed to the brain region of a rat which processes whisker touch.
The latest bionic superhero is a rat: its brain hooked up to an infrared detector, it's become the first animal to be given a sixth sense.
Developed by Miguel Nicolelis and colleagues at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, the system connects a head-mounted sensor to a brain region that normally processes touch sensations from whiskers. As shown in this video, the rat's brain is tricked when infrared light is detected, giving it a new sense organ. "Instead of seeing, the rats learned how to touch the light," says Nicolelis.
Even though the touch-processing brain area acquires a new role, the team found that it continues to process touch sensations from whiskers, somehow dividing its time between both types of signal. "The adult brain is a lot more plastic than we thought," says Nicolelis.
The finding could lead to new brain prostheses that restore sight in humans with a damaged visual cortex. By bypassing the damaged part of the brain altogether, it might be possible to wire up a video camera to a part of the brain that processes touch, letting people "touch" what the camera sees.
According to Nicolelis, it could also lead to superhero powers for humans. "It could be X-rays, radio waves, anything," he says. "Superman probably had a prosthetic device that nobody knew of."