Many of you will remember the tragic story of Christopher Reeves, the actor most famous in his role of Superman, a blockbuster film of the 1980s. Reeves broke his neck in a horse-jumping accident, and spent the remaining years of his life seeking a medical breakthrough that would enable him to walk again. But technology to read and transmit signals from the human brain is, even today, still in its infancy.
One of the major problems confronting scientists working with the nervous system is the size of nerves themselves. Electrodes that could be attached to nerve endings to receive their electrical impulses are enormous in comparison. Not only that, they are also frequently attacked by the body’s immune system, resulting in inflammation.
Now engineers at the University of Michigan’s Center for Neural Communication Technology have developed an electrode that is ten times smaller than its closest competitor, and able to measure the activity of a single neuron in the brain. Studies of the new electrode are promising: after six weeks of implantation in rat brains their immune response had stabilised.
Daryl Kipke, Professor of Biomedical Engineering, believes that practical applications for the new electrodes are only ten years away.