The Pentagon is attempting what was, until recently, an impossible technological feat—developing a high-bandwidth neural interface that would allow people to beam data from their minds to external devices and back.
That’s right—a brain modem. One that could allow a soldier to, for example, control a drone with his mind.
This seemingly unlikely piece of technology has just gotten a lot less unlikely. On Feb. 8, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)—the U.S. military’s fringe-science wing—announced the first successful tests, on animal subjects, of a tiny sensor that travels through blood vessels, lodges in the brain and records neural activity.
The so-called “stentrode,” a combination stent and electrode, is the size of a paperclip and flexible. The tiny, injectable machine—the invention of neurologist Tom Oxley and his team at the University of Melbourne in Australia—could help researchers solve one of the most vexing problems with the brain modem: how to insert a transmitter into the brain without also drilling a hole in the user’s head, a risky procedure under any circumstances.
Based on existing stents that doctors use to clean blood vessels, the stentrode includes sensors and a tiny transmitter. Entering the bloodstream via a catheter, the stentrode swims in the bloodstream.
Doctors monitor the stentrode on its journey through the circulatory system. When the device reaches the brain, the physicians command it to expand against the blood vessels’ walls and hold station. There it remains for potentially months at a time, recording and relaying the subtle electrical signals that flow from the brain to the rest of the body.
“By reducing the need for invasive surgery, the stentrode may pave the way for more practical implementations of those kinds of life-changing applications of brain-machine interfaces,” Doug Weber, a DARPA program manager, said in a statement.
With DARPA funding beginning four years ago, Oxley and his team tested the stentrode on sheep, he and his teammates explained in an academic paper published in the journal Nature Biotechnology in early February.
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