When you think there are sparks that go off in your brain. Some of us have miss fires, so we need medication to help us regain the correct path and sparks in the way, or at least in part of the way, they should be. When we think of spies, we think of people who keep to the shadows like Ninja and peer into our lives. Well, there is another spy on the way, smart dust.
In the 1990s, a researcher named Kris Pister dreamed up a wild future in which people would sprinkle the Earth with countless tiny sensors, no larger than grains of rice.
Intelligent dust particles embedded within the brain could form an entirely new form of a brain-machine interface, say engineers. That can be used to help with future brain studies. Dongjin Seo and pals at the University of California Berkeley reveal an entirely new way to study and interact with the brain. Their idea is to sprinkle electronic sensors the size of dust particles into the cortex and to interrogate them remotely using ultrasound. The ultrasound also powers this so-called neural dust.
In a paper titled Neural Dust: An Ultrasonic, Low Power Solution for Chronic Brain-Machine Interfaces, the researchers unveiled an approach that surely will have Orwell enthusiasts’ skin crawling. The system is lower power, can have a high spatial resolution, and it is easily portable. It is also rugged and can potentially provide a link over long periods of time. “A major hurdle in brain-machine interfaces (BMI) is the lack of an implantable neural interface system that remains viable for a lifetime,” say Seo and co.
Each of these particles would consist of CMOS circuits and sensors that would measure the electrical activity of nearby neurons. The data would be collected and stored outside the body. To be clear, the paper is only theoretical and exploratory; the dust doesn’t exist at this time.
There are many challenges for this to become reality. They have the problem of designing and building neural dust particles on a scale of roughly 100 micrometers that can send and receive signals in the harsh, warm and noisy environment within the body. That’s why Seo and co have chosen ultrasound to send and receive data. They calculate that the power required to use electromagnetic waves on the scale would generate a damaging amount of heat because of the amount of energy the body absorbs and the troubling signal-to-noise ratios at this scale.
The next problem is linking the electronics to the piezoelectric system that converts ultrasound to electronic signals and vice versa. Finally, there is the challenge of designing and building the interrogation system that generates the ultrasound to power the entire array but at a low enough power to avoid heating skull and the brain.
Now, a team from the University of Michigan has built not just a very small microchip, but a whole functioning computer, and it’s less than a cubic millimeter in size. Called the Michigan Micro Mote, or M3, this tiny computer features processing, data storage, and wireless communication. Researcher Pabral Dutta thinks it will be the “next revolution in computing.”
This technology is almost here, and maybe it will help with the electrical firing already in the brain. Instead of medication, these little dust particles could zap your brain at the right moment to give you that relief as if it was a pill. Or will our body think it’s a virus and try to fight it off, and we end up sick because of it?
Next time watch out for someone who sneezes. They could be spraying spies all over the place.
Forrest L. Rawls