New Technique Developed by Neural Scientists Shows Great Potential for Neural Prostheses
Neuroscientists at the University of California-Berkeley are developing a technique that could give us the ability to fool our brain into thinking that we’d experienced something that never happened by manipulating electrical activity in the brain.
The technique is known as holographic projection and it involves a piece of equipment called a holographic brain modulator, which uses flashes of light to activate or suppress neurons, aka nerve cells, in the brain in a way that mirrors real patterns of brain activity. In doing so, you can trick the brain into thinking something it hasn’t felt or sensed before.
The Berkeley team’s main goal is to try and be able to simulate patterns of actual brain responses by controlling thousands of neurons at once. This could result in numerous, useful applications.
For instance, the researchers hope that the technique could eventually be used to control prosthetic limbs, allow paralyzed people to feel touch or even enable the blind to see by converting the images from a camera lens into real brain activity.
Alan Mardinly, an assistant professor of molecular and cell biology at Berkeley, said in a statement that this has great potential for neural prostheses because it has the precision needed for the brain to interpret the pattern of activation. If you can read and write the language of the brain, you can speak to it in its own language and it can interpret the message much better. He added that this is one of the first steps in a long road to develop a technology that could be a virtual brain implant with additional senses or enhanced senses.
Mardinly and his team are the authors of a new paper, published in the journal Nature Neuroscience, which outlines the prototype holographic brain modulator and tests they conducted on mice.
Nicolas Pégard, another author of the paper from Berkeley, explained that the major advance is the ability to control neurons precisely in space and time, in other words, to shoot the very specific sets of neurons you want to activate and do it at the characteristic scale and the speed at which they normally work.
The team used mice to test the modulator on areas of the brain related to touch, vision and motor skills, as the mice walked on a treadmill with their heads immobilized. While the researchers did not observe any behavioral changes in the mice, they did measure brain activity that was similar to that seen during normal sensory stimulation, indicating that the technique was having some effect.
The technology is still in its very early stages and only works on a tiny section of the brain. Plus, the equipment needed is large. However, the team hopes that they can scale-up the technique to affect larger areas of the brain and thus have a larger influence on behavior, in addition to downsizing the equipment until it can fit in a backpack.
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