'Neural Dust,' Implanted In Brain, May Let Minds Meld With Machines

'Neural Dust' May Let Minds Meld With Machines

Earlier this month, five researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, put out a paper discussing the possible development of mind-reading "neural dust," which could be implanted directly into the human brain to allow people to interact with machines.

The paper is what the MIT Technology Review calls a theoretical study: The idea is "littered with challenges beyond the state-of-the-art."

But according to the Berkeley team, this neural dust sprinkled into an individual's brain tissue could form an "implantable neural interface system that remains viable for a lifetime."

The particles of neural dust would be very small, not more than 100 micrometers across -- that's 100 millionths of a meter. Each particle would actually be a sensor capable of measuring electrical activity in neurons, covered in polymer to render it biologically neutral and backed by a piezoelectric material that could convert electrical signals into ultrasound. Thousands of these sensors could be constructed "at the tips of fine wire arrays," the paper explains. The wire arrays could then be inserted directly into brain tissue. Once the sensors pulled free of the wire, the arrays would be withdrawn.

Implanted in the brain, these sensors could theoretically work wonders. Ryan Whitwam of ExtremeTech speculates that they could enable brain-machine interfaces, mind reading or even "science-fictional telepathy."

The Berkeley team -- Dongjin Seo, Jose Carmena, Jan Rabaey, Elad Alon and Michel M. Maharbiz -- certainly have vision. The MIT Technology Review mentions that Maharbiz developed "the world’s first remotely controlled beetle," which the journal called "one of the top 10 emerging technologies of 2009."

But should the team try to make their proposed neural dust a reality, they face significant challenges -- including, rather critically, making sure the system is efficient enough to "avoid heating between skull and brain."

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