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New Flexible Sensors Offer Unprecedented View of Brain

April 13, 2012

Jonathan Viventi, assistant professor at NYU-Poly and the NYU Center for Neural Science, co-led a team of researchers to devise a streamlined, minimally invasive brain interface that may yield new insights into the causes of brain diseases like epilepsy, as well as usher in a new generation of implantable neuroprosthetic and diagnostic devices.

The findings were published in the December 2011 issue of Nature Neuroscience. Co-authors include the study’s senior author Brian Litt of the University of Pennsylvania and John Rogers of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The technology has been licensed to mc10, a Boston-area company delivering flexible electronics for industrial and biomedical applications.

Tapping into the human brain to understand its functions in daily life—as well as its malfunctions in illness—has long been a challenge for researchers. Mapping brain activity requires unwieldy, invasive arrays of electrodes and sensors that can damage tissue while only reading activity in a limited area. Viventi’s research yielded a novel, implantable electrode array integrating ultrathin, flexible silicon transistors capable of sampling large areas of the brain with minimal wiring.

The new approach enables dense arrays of thousands of multiplexed sensors that provide unprecedented spatial resolution—more than 400 times the current level—with a fraction of the wires. In experiments, just 39 wires were required for 360 electrodes. The arrays are also non-penetrating and, unlike current techniques, cause little or no damage to fragile brain tissue. The use of flexible silicon also allows active circuitry to be built right at the brain surface.

“The circuits we’re familiar with are built on rigid silicon, which doesn’t conform to the body,” Viventi explains. “Ultrathin silicon retains its performance while being flexible, and is much better suited to implantable devices. It’s the difference between a piece of paper and a piece of 2x4 lumber—same material, dramatically different properties.”

In experiments, the research team deployed their system to record various types of brain activity in animals, including sleep and visual responses and observation of the brain during an epileptic seizure. Their techniques may improve understanding of what causes epilepsy and lead to implantable technologies to stop or prevent seizures in patients.

The research also holds promise for other medical applications, including dramatic improvements of existing implantable devices, such as cardiac pacemakers and defibrillators, cochlear and retinal implants, and motor prosthetic systems.

The research was conducted with support from the U.S. National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke and its National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; the National Science Foundation; the U.S. Department of Energy Division of Materials Sciences; Citizens United for Research in Epilepsy; and the Dr. Michel and Mrs. Anna Mirowski Discovery Fund for Epilepsy Research.

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New Flexible Sensors Offer Unprecedented View of Brain

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