New types of brain probes could literally shed a different light on the internal workings of the brain. That was the message delivered by Ed Boyden, a researcher at the MIT Media Lab, during today's "Open Questions in Neuroscience" symposium.
Neuroscientists already have used photosensitive chemicals known as rhodopsins to monitor how neural circuitry works — just as geneticists use "glow-in-the-dark" genes as a way to monitor how traits are passed along from an organism to its progeny. Flash a light on a particular brain cell, and you can trace how that affects the chemical pathways leading from that cell.
Boyden's idea would be to build probes based on optical fibers and waveguides that could be implanted into the brain, to light up an area of interest and map the circuitry. You could even light up multiple neural pathways by building tiny mirrors into the probes. The next step is to create arrays of those probes that could be wired onto the skull, like a small-scale pincushion.
Or how about a wireless connection? Boyden said his lab has already developed software and wireless hardware to monitor multiple sets of brain implants. "One laptop can control 83 animals at once," Boyden said.
Boyden told me that he and his colleagues will be providing further details about the prospects for next-generation brain implants in research that's currently under review. So stay tuned for more about these not-so-alien probes.
Stay tuned for more from the "Open Questions in Neuroscience" symposium, sponsored by the Allen Institute for Brain Science at Seattle's Experience Music Project and Science Fiction Museum. Join the Cosmic Log corps by signing up as my Facebook friend or hooking up on Twitter. And if you really want to be friendly, ask me about "The Case for Pluto."