Supplying Neuroscience Laboratories with Tomorrow’s Brain Interfaces

November 1, 2016

Duke receives $3.4 million to improve today's best brain sensor technologies and push them into neuroscience labs worldwide

By Ken Kingery

Researchers at Duke University want to help colleagues around the world eavesdrop on tens of thousands of neurons at once.

Jonathan Viventi, assistant professor of biomedical engineering and neurology at Duke, has received a three-year, $3.4 million grant from the National Institutes of Health’s Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative. The award will support Viventi and colleagues at New York University, Columbia University and the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign as they refine today’s best brain interface technologies for everyday laboratory use.

“Our goal is to make usable devices that are stable, repeatable and easy to build that we can then share with the neuroscience community at-large to accelerate research,” said Viventi. “There’s usually a valley between state-of-the-art devices being used in only a few laboratories and the rest of the scientific community. We’re trying to bridge that valley.”

For the past several years, Viventi and other researchers in neuroscience have been developing flexible electronics requiring only a fraction of the wiring of past systems. This has dramatically increased the number of neural sensors a single device can contain.

Rather than having a couple hundred sensors—each with its own wire—thin, flexible silicon electronics can do the same in less space and with fewer wires. It was only a couple of years ago that Viventi succeeded in creating a thin, flexible array of 360 sensors that required only 39 wires.

With the new BRAIN Initiative grant, Viventi and his colleagues are looking to push the number of electrodes more than 100 times higher to 65,536 with 100 times the density of their current devices. The sensors will also sample at faster rates, allowing researchers to record activity from individual neurons.

These devices, however, are only for recording neurons from the surface of the brain. To get at the networks and complexities within, Viventi will also be pursuing wireless penetrating electrodes. By being fully untethered and flexible, these devices will be able to move with the brain inside of the skull, reducing injury and improving their performance.

The technology will also have applications in diagnosing and treating neurological disorders. Viventi plans to test their ability to improve motor prosthetics and to better diagnose and treat epilepsy using responsive stimulation.

“We have a bunch of groups lined up who want to use these devices,” said Viventi. “We’ll be making our technologies available for use in animal models within their labs and throughout the neuroscience community.”

The BRAIN Initiative was announced in April 2013 by President Obama as a bold, new initiative focused on revolutionizing our understanding of the human brain. As one of the Administration’s “Grand Challenges,” the Initiative has ambitious but achievable goals that require advances in science and technology.