Penn: A More Flexible Window Into the Brain

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Media Contact:Kim Menard | Kim.Menard@uphs.upenn.edu | 215-662-6183November 13, 2011

PHILADELPHIA - A team of researchers co-led by the University of Pennsylvania has developed and tested a new high-resolution, ultra-thin device capable of recording brain activity from the cortical surface without having to use penetrating electrodes. The device could make possible a whole new generation of brain-computer interfaces for treating neurological and psychiatric illness and research. The work was published in Nature Neuroscience.

"The new technology we have created can conform to the brain's unique geometry, and records and maps activity at resolutions that have not been possible before," says Brian Litt, MD, the study’s senior author and Associate Professor of Neurology at the Perelman School of Medicine and Bioengineering at the University of Pennsylvania. "Using this device, we can explore the brain networks underlying normal function and disease with much more precision, and its likely to change our understanding of memory, vision, hearing and many other normal functions and diseases." For our patients, implantable brain devices could be inserted in less invasive operations and, by mapping circuits involved in epilepsy, paralysis, depression and other 'network brain disorders' in sufficient detail, this could allow us to intervene to make patients better, Litt said.

Composed of 720 silicon nanomembrane transistors in a multiplexed 360-channel array, the newly designed ultrathin, flexible, foldable device can be positioned not only on the brain surface but also inside sulci and fissures or even between the cortical hemispheres, areas that are physically inaccessible to conventional rigid electrode arrays. Current arrays also require separate wires for each individual sensor, meaning that they can sample broad regions of the brain with low resolution or small regions with high resolution, but not both. The multiplexed nanosensors of the new device can cover a much large brain area with high resolution, while using almost ten times fewer wires.

Monitoring and studying the brain’s constant electrical activity, or to alter it when it goes awry, often requires the placement of electrodes deep within specific regions of the brain. These currently used devices can be clumsy and of low resolution, and those used for neuromotor prostheses can cause tissue inflammation and hemorrhages.

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