Neurotech Research

How will Nanoparticles and Neurons Get Along?

Much of the predicted future of neurotechnology is grounded in the continuing success and development of nanotechnology. This field is broad, for sure, and is even a primary target of the US Federal Government (see the NNI).

A particularly critical aspect, however, considers the development of nanoparticles. A great deal of research is already underway on developing very tiny capsules that will one day float around in our bodies and drop off exact doses of drugs to a specific cell. Or, pint-sized nanobots with full on-board electronics will maneuver through our circulatory system looking for tissues to repair, cells to manipulate, and observations to report back to the host.

The prospects for this sort of technology might be exciting, and even a little scary. But, what is really important to think about right now is how will the human body actually get along with the nano-invaders? Will our immune system run in overdrive to try to stop the little buggers? Will we have to force an evolutionary leap to develop new symbiotic relationships with metallic pellets that are only just trying to be beneficial to our survival?

Three researchers from North Carolina State University are addressing this important issue that must be resolved before any real human trials of nano-particle infestations are implemented. Dr. Jim RiviereDr. Nancy Monteiro-Riviere, and Dr. Xin-Rui Xia are collaborating to figure out a way to pre-screen a nanoparticle’s characteristics in order to predict how it will behave once inside the body.

As soon as any foreign object slips into the human body, our sophisticated immune system kicks into high gear. Everything that is native to a body is essentially key-coded with a biological pass that tells any immune response that “I’m OK to be here, thank you!” If something inside isn’t coded properly, then a rapid kill response is launched through a biochemical cascade of the complement system (learn more), which attacks the surface of unrecognized cells and objects with a variety of binding proteins.

This is certainly a natural response that we would not want to occur if we were voluntarily injecting ourselves with nanobots. The brain might be able to consciously will our hands and feet to move as we see fit, but our species has not yet figured out how to mentally control our internal processes (or, can we?). Until thought-invoked immune suppression is possible, it will be more useful to clearly understand the biochemistry of the interactions between nanoparticles and our tissues, and use this characterization to correctly modify the nano-stuff to stay functional while surfing in the blood stream.

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“Predicting how nanoparticles will react in the human body” :: :: August, 15, 2010 :: [ READ ]

The Open Source Virtual Brain

A screenshot view of The Whole Brain Catalog software; from the WBC Wiki

The Open Source movement has been an integral part of software development for many years now, and it is starting to explode into the science world. The latest project might even transform brain science communication and understanding to a new level as the new Whole Brain Catalog is now available for anyone to access.

The brain is complicated. The brain is designed with a biological network of connected cells so intricate that a complete visualization or map of the system has yet to be developed. Neuroscientists have been trying to determine a way to create this map for many years, and advances in brain imaging has helped inch us closer toward this realization. The Whole Brain Catalog, from researchers at UC San Diego, is the latest attempt at constructing this map, and they are taking a little inspiration from Google.

The software integrates imaging data and models from anyone who is able to contribute. There is still so much to discover about the structure and function of the brain, and amassing this sort of information from everyone in an organized and visually integrated way could really bring about a revolution in the fundamental understanding of the human brain.

Researchers generating data can provide 2D images, 3D reconstructions, cellular morphologies, and even functional simulations that will all be integrated into the system’s catalog. Users, which may be anyone from other neuroscience professionals to the interested citizen scientists, can explore through actual imagery of slices of the brain and wander around 3D models of brain regions all the way down to molecular structures.

A future goal of the WBC is to integrate their extensive data with the National Institute of Health’s Neuroscience Information Framework (NIF), which currently is a growing online database of all web-based neuroscience resources. Anyone can register today with this open-source program through Neuinfo and search the extensive collection of neuroscience information.

Although the WBC sounds wonderful and exciting, the software is very much in an early, beta-testing stage. We have been trying to install the program here at Neuron News on a Dell laptop running an Intel Celeron 2 GHz, 2 GB RAM, which is just below the minimum computing system for the software (view system requirements). So, the software has loaded up, but quickly took everything this little computer had to offer and crashed it down hard.

If you have the computing resources to try out the latest release of The Whole Brain Catalog (download now), please comment here to let us know about what interesting images and simulations you discover. And, we would also appreciate if you could share your screenshots with Neuron News.

What this sort of software and world-wide open collaboration could also foster is a Zooniverse-inspired citizen science project. The team that started the Galaxy Zoo interface is continuing to help citizen scientists look “upward” with new projects to look at the Moon, Mars, galaxies, solar storms, and more. It would be also exciting to offer the opportunity for people to look “inward,” and enable citizen scientists to help identify and discover new things out of the deluge of data coming from the neuroinformatics and neuroimaging fields. In fact, the interest in participation might exponentially increase from the Zooniverse’s current 300,000-plus world-wide volunteers, since it might be more broadly considered that trying to figure out more about ourselves is paramount to watching for a dark black hole so many light years away.

It is likely that some group has already begun the initial considerations for developing a citizen science-lead, at home discovery interface for the human brain. If not, then we would like to formally propose the idea here on Neuron News, and find out what you think about the possibility of creating an open platform allowing anyone to explore the human mind and help make scientific observations and discoveries by sifting through the increasing collection of brain images and models.

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“3-D brain model could revolutionize neurology” :: :: July 30, 2010 :: [ READ ]

Illuminating Your Thoughts

Sticking sharp, pointy metal needles into your brain is never an idea for a good time (image, deep brain stimulation). Future successful developments in neurotechnology, however, will be dependent on discovering ways to directly access our neurons without damaging surrounding brain tissue.

The mechanisms of how neural stimulation affects a human is still largely misunderstood, but therapeutic deep brain stimulation is used to relieve symptoms in patients with Parkinson’s Diseasedystonia (a disorder involving continuous muscle contraction), and even severe cases of depression. This technique is still highly experimental and carries risks from the invasive nature of implanting electrodes into your brain.

Although still invasive, a new approach is being developed at Case Western Reserve University by the Strowbridge Lab, where a specially coated glass needle containing tons of metallic nanoparticles is inserted into the brain. Typically, electrical wires are needed to connect to implanted stimulating devices, but these nanoparticles are designed to generate electric fields when illuminated by infrared laser light (at 830 nm wavelength). No wires needed, just a non-invasive laser zap. The infrared wavelength is a useful selection because it easily passes through brain tissue, but can then be absorbed by the nanoparticles and re-radiated as an electric field.

Another key advantage to this technique is that the tiny electric fields from the particles will superimpose and extend out into the surrounding tissue stimulating the neurons in the field’s wake to either generate their own electrical signals or possibly suppress their activity. The range of this wireless approach allows for a broader swath of neurons to be affected, whereas direct electrode stimulation can only influence a small cluster of nearby cells.

Indirectly activating neurons with laser light has been performed on cells in culture (read more), but this is the first attempt at working in actual brain tissue. So far, these experiments are applied only to extracted tissue from rat brains, but it is an important first step toward developing the technology further to learn how to best apply it into a living brain.

“Laser Probes for Brain Experiments” :: IEEE Spectrum :: May 19, 2009 :: [ READ ]

Growing neurons on the Nanowire Superhighway

Many research groups have been working on the challenging aspects of controlling the growth of living neural networks. Of course, the ultimate hope is to eventually develop the technology to design electrical devices that will directly integrate with the human nervous system. A variety of important approaches are being considered, including surface patterning techniques used in conventional microfluidic technology ( learn more ), optical guidance from focused laser beams called “optical tweezers”–other wise known as present-day tractor beams–( learn more ), as well as various chemical coating methods like the use of novel “self-assembled monolayers” (SAMs). Here, a specialized two-ended molecule coats a surface with one end that likes to “stick” to the surface, like a silicon chip, and the other end likes to “stick” to neurons. Where ever the SAMs stick so will a neuron.

Recently at the Division of Solid State Physics at Lund University in Sweden, an advanced approach to surface patterning has been developed using electron-beam lithography to create rows of nanowires sitting on the surface of a substrate that influences the directional growth of the neuron’s axons and bundles of nerve fibers. You might imagine future neurotech device developers using this idea to pattern a silicon wafer with a specific highway map to force the exact growth of neurons in order to generate the correct network structure for a desired neuro-device’s function.

All of this pioneering work in patterning the growth of neurons into a structured network has a long road ahead. These early developments are so critical, and progress along several, competing paths are important for developing effective methods to design and create real neurotechnolgocial devices.

And, to emphasize the importance of this research, we are beginning to develop a new Neuron News Review section to cover the past, present, and future directions in living neuron network pattern techniques.

“Nanotechnology helps building a highway for nerve fibers” :: Nanowerk Spotlight :: May 13, 2009 :: [ READ ]

Silicon Brains: Less gushy and maybe just as powerful

Recently we reviewed the interesting work of FACETS, a large European collaboration developing hardware-level designs for computer circuits that mimic the architecture of our brain. Another group here in the United States at Stanford University is taking an alternate hard-wiring approach to designing a brain in silico.

They hope to create a computer that works nearly as powerfully as the human brain–and be “affordable” at the same time. In addition, they also anticipate that not only will their work take a step forward to a deeper understanding of human brain function, but it will also provide the computational power to help other neuroscientists better analyze and simulate neural activity to advance their own research.

The research team, lead by Kwabena Boahen, is developing a neuromorphic chip: a computer that is not based on the classic transistor developed in 1947, but instead is composed of individual mini-circuits designed like a human neuron, developed some 250,000 or more years ago. More specifically, the ion-flow regulated in the neuron’s membrane is replicated by electron flow in the silicon device. And with quite a bit of clever foresight, the interconnections between the “silicon neurons” are not permanently hardwired on the circuit. Instead, each silicon neuron is identified by a memory address, like in a typical RAM chip, and their electrical activity is referenced by the controlling software. This allows for the same chip to be soft-wired to model the interconnectivity of any sort of neural network that is desired to be used for a particular computational application.

Read more about the specific details of how the neuromorphic chips are designed, fabricated, and tested at the Brains in Silicon group’s website. [ VISIT ]

Recommended article:
K Boahen, “Neuromorphic Microchips,” Scientific American, vol 292, no 5, pp 56-63, May 2005. [ READ (pdf) ]

DARPA’s Path to The Singularity

On May 5, 2009 DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) announced that it is preparing to begin an exciting new research program that may be the most ambitious and direct effort by the United States Government to to push human technology closer to the edge of the awaiting Singularity. The program is referred to as Physical Intelligence, and DARPA is currently soliciting interested research groups to develop project proposals for submission. The ultimate goal of the effort will be to fundamentally understand the physical phenomenon of intelligence and to then demonstrate the characteristic in a man-made electronic or chemical system.

Although you might have considered taking on this problem yourself this weekend, it’s understandable if a week’s worth of yard work and Mother’s Day preparations took a critical priority. Leaving this project to large governmental agencies and massive academic and industrial collaborations may be the best idea for your personal work-load at this time.

The funding levels for the Physical Intelligence program have not yet been set, as they will be later determined depending on the details of winning proposals. This could be an effective blank check from the Federal Government supporting a potentially mammoth project that would do nothing less than transform humanity. Why go back to th Moon when we could instead solve one of the most fundamental questions of our species. In the meantime, America could certainly regain our stature of being the primary scientific center on Planet Earth.

What is particularly interesting about this solicitation is that DARPA has explicitly limited the theoretical framework from which researchers may pursue the solution to understanding Physical Intelligence. They make the bold claim that the phenomenon of intelligence emerges directly from thermodynamic processes in the human brain or an engineered machine. Any proposal that contains alternate viewpoints will automatically be rejected from consideration for funding.

At first, it may seem that starting with thermodynamics is too limiting for theoretical progress in modeling intelligent behavior. As a basic starting point, the science of thermodynamics looks at characteristics that emerge from a system composed of effectively infinite parts. For example, the measured temperature of your steak flaming on the grill is just the collective measurement of the motion of trillions of meat atoms and molecules. At other levels, the theory models the transfer of energy between systems and measures the slightly odd variable of entropy, which essentially characterizes how messed up the observed system is. In other words, the shattered glass just knocked to the floor by your coordination-lacking infant son has a higher entropy than it did moments before while sitting peacefully on the dinning room table.

But, we aren’t just talking about heat engines that convert a hot flame into mechanical motion and the phase transition we experience every day while boiling water into steam over a hot stove. Thermodynamics and the broader field of statical mechanics represent the fundamental physics that underlie all of the relatively new ideas of self-organization, complex systems, network architecture and many other concepts that are driving the latest in brain science. Maybe DARPA really is on to something theoretical and, even if they don’t know the answers to life’s biggest questions just yet, they certainly know how to keep their funding solicitations general enough to allow for a broad range of scientific collaborators to jump on board … if they are only brave enough.

The Physical Intelligence program is organized around three levels of critical milestones. The first step is to develop a mathematical theory of the thermodynamics of intelligence and then to represent this theory in a producible system. Second, the aforementioned engineered system must be built and successfully demonstrate intelligence. Third, and finally, additional tools must be developed and designed to further analyze and monitor the created intelligent systems.

The other key limitation to this solicitation is that proposers must be able to submit plans that cover not just a portion of these three milestones, but they must be prepared to take the project all the way to home plate. This is Nobel Prize territory, folks, and anyone who is prepared to tackle human species-altering projects must be ready for the ride of a lifetime.

The boldness of the program is nothing less than what would be expected from proud United States scientists, and the American society is certainly ready for another “One small step for man… one giant leap for mankind.” It certainly is an exciting moment to see the interest, dedication, and–of course, most importantly–financial backing of the Federal Government be honed onto the advancement of machines that match, or even exceed, the level of human intelligence that we effortlessly demonstrate every day.

Last updated August 7, 2022