A new kind of injectable biosensor might one day be able to read your thoughts or let you communicate with nothing but your mind. Researchers behind NeuroSWARM3 say its gold-plated nanosensors, which are the size of a single viral particle, could travel through the bloodstream and cross the blood-brain barrier. Once inside the brain they would act like a kind of antenna, turning neural activity into optical signals that could be wirelessly sent to an external device.
Researchers at the University of California, Santa Cruz, believe that in the shorter term it could help scientists better understand the mysteries of human cognition. Longer term, potential applications sound like the stuff of science fiction: composing messages with your thoughts, controlling exoskeletons with your mind, the ability to monitor neurological disease with no invasive procedures.
"NeuroSWARM3 can convert the signals that accompany thoughts to remotely measurable signals for high precision brain-machine interfacing," said A Ali Yanik, co-author of the study.
The technology works by tapping into the electrical signals that neurons use to send information to each other. This happens when humans do just about anything, including moving and thinking. NeuroSWARM3 is a new way to monitor that electrical activity. In fact, Yanik's latest research shows that it's sensitive enough to pick up the activity of individual brain cells.
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"The technology is similar to RFID," Yanick told Science Focus, referencing the wireless radio frequency technology that underpins things like paying for goods with a smartphone. "With RFID, you have a back-scattering signal and then you read a static signal which delivers you the barcode or whatever it may be. In our case, we have this barcode, which is the electrophysiological signal of the cells, but it's not static and we are reading it wirelessly."
The fact that the technology operates at the nanoscale is what makes it incredible. Despite their tiny size, each nanosensor particle includes wireless power transfer, electronic translation of neural signals and broadcasting of those signals. And because the neurosensors can pass the blood-brain barrier, it means that it can be injected directly into the bloodstream.
It's important to note that any testing on animals or humans has not yet occurred but if it is, the procedure would be a lot less invasive than comparable technologies such as Elon Musk's Neuralink. Whereas that requires a surgically implanted microchip and wires hanging out of the side of a person's skull, NeuroSWARM3 doesn't require surgery or implants or wires. The nanoparticles are also powered indefinitely.
“We are just at the beginning stages of this novel technology, but I think we have a good foundation to build on,” Yanik added. “Our next goal is to start experiments in animals.”
Mind reading tech
Elon Musk’s much-vaunted neurotech start-up requires implantable probes that work as a brain-computer interface. The actual technology remains secretive but in April 2021 the company demonstrated a chimp using Neuralink to play a game of Pong.
This start-up combines electro-optical technology, lasers and holographics to produce non-invasive imagery of the brain as well as other organs or tumours in incredible detail.
Sometimes described as a Fitbit for the nervous system, neural dust describes tiny implantable sensors that might pave the way for “neuroceuticals”, diagnostic or therapeutic technologies that work by remotely activating dust-sized devices in the body.
A former deputy editor at Science Focus, Ian once undertook a scientific ranking of the UK's best rollercoasters on behalf of the magazine. He is now a freelance writer, which is frankly a lot less fun.
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