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Minute silicon probes allow scientists to measure the brain

Scientists have developed ultra-thin probes that allow them to record the activity of hundreds of neurons in the brain.

With over 70 billion neurons controlling the way we think, feel and behave, the human brain is one of the most complex objects that we know of on the planet. To unlock its secrets, scientists have to measure thousands of individual neurons within the brain at the same time. The pay-off for their efforts is simple: The more we know about how our brain works, the better our chances of successfully treating diseases such as Alzheimer’s and depression.

“Finding out how countless individual neurons work together is the first step towards understanding how the cerebrum functions”, neuroscientist Matteo Carandini explains. “Until recently, it was possible to either measure the activity of individual neurons within a specific spot in the brain or to reveal larger, regional patterns of activity — but not to do both at the same time”. The reason for this was that the conventional method up until this point relied on using wire electrodes that were equipped with only around 24 measurement probes, of which just a very limited number could be placed in the brain at any one time.

Silicon probes record neuron activity across the entire brain

However, a team of scientists has now managed to develop ultra-thin silicon probes. The “Neuropixels” are equipped with more than 960 measurement sites that can be divided across the entire brain. Using these Neuropixels, scientists can record a greater number of neurons at the same time in a single experiment than ever before. Their findings from such experiments will help scientists to work out how human beings make decisions as well as how our emotions are regulated.

Thanks to the new probes, scientists can record more nerve cells in the brain than ever before. Image: HHMI Janelia Research Campus – Timothy Harris Lab

The Neuropixel probes are one centimetre long and 70 by 20 micrometres wide and are equipped with more than 100 measurement sites per millimetre. Electrical signals detected by the probes are automatically converted into data so that a computer can analyse them and obtain meaningful information from them relating to the activity of individual brain cells.

Neuropixels will soon be available at cost price

Andrew Welchman, professor of psychology at Cambridge University, is excited by this new technology: “This is a significant step on the path towards understanding how the brain works”. Welchman predicts that the new probes will—figuratively speaking—move brain research from the era of small black and white TV sets to large, high-resolution flat-screen displays. “Neuropixel probes will change what we know and even how we think about the brain. We still have a long way to go in uncovering the brain’s mysteries, but this new technology is an important development”.

400 prototype Neuropixels are already being used in research centres. As of next year, the probes will be available at cost price to scientists around the world, which could usher in a new era in the field of brain research.

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