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Electronics Meet Animal Brains

Published on Dec 17, 2015


Until recently, neurobiologists have used computers for simulation, data collection, and data analysis, but not to interact directly with nerve tissue in live, behaving animals. Although digital computers and nerve tissue both use voltage waveforms to transmit and process information, engineers and neurobiologists have yet to cohesively link the electronic signaling of digital computers with the electronic signaling of nerve tissue in freely behaving animals.

Recent advances in microelectromechanical systems (MEMS), CMOS electronics, and embedded computer systems will finally let us link computer circuitry to neural cells in live animals and, in particular, to reidentifiable cells with specific, known neural functions. The key components of such a brain-computer system include neural probes, analog electronics, and a miniature microcomputer. Researchers developing neural probes such as sub- micron MEMS probes, microclamps, microprobe arrays, and similar structures can now penetrate and make electrical contact with nerve cells with out causing significant or long-term damage to probes or cells.

Researchers developing analog electronics such as low-power amplifiers and analog-to-digital converters can now integrate these devices with micro- controllers on a single low-power CMOS die. Further, researchers developing embedded computer systems can now incorporate all the core circuitry of a modern computer on a single silicon chip that can run on miniscule power from a tiny watch battery. In short, engineers have all the pieces they need to build truly autonomous implantable computer systems.

Until now, high signal-to-noise recording as well as digital processing of real-time neuronal signals have been possible only in constrained laboratory experiments. By combining MEMS probes with analog electronics and modern CMOS computing into self-contained, implantable microsystems, implantable computers will free neuroscientists from the lab bench.

Neurons and neuronal networks decide, remember, modulate, and control an animal's every sensation, thought, movement, and act. The intimate details of this network, including the dynamic properties of individual neurons and neuron populations, give a nervous system the power to control a wide array of behavioral functions.

The goal of understanding these details motivates many workers in modern neurobiology. To make significant progress, these neurobiologists need methods for recording the activity of single neurons or neuron assemblies, for long timescales, at high fidelity, in animals that can interact freely with their sensory world and express normal behavioral responses.

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