You’d most likely prefer that doctors restore lost sight or hearing by directly repairing your eyes and ears but Rice University is one step closer to the next big thing: transmitting data directly to your brain using a microscope that weighs about 0.2 grams, about one-five-thousandth the size of a standard microscope.
Engineers at Rice University are working on this project known as FlatScope that sits on your brain to both monitor and trigger neurons modified to be fluorescent when active. They’re planning to make the technology human-ready, thanks to an ambitious initiative funded by the military’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.
The DARPA initiative encourages scientists to create an implant which will translate brain signals into computer signals and the other way around. The Rice project is just a part of that larger initiative and will rely on other DARPA-funded research to achieve its full potential.
But assuming all those pieces come together, the Rice team thinks it’ll have a device ready that might allow neuroscientists to see the brain at work as never before. It might even restore sight.
To understand how it works, first we need to understand another project inside the larger initiative. Run out of Yale University, it’s working on finding a way to make human neurons light up when they’re doing something. That process has already been developed in mice through genetic engineering, however translating that to humans is trickier. A second related process does the reverse — so when you shine a light on a neuron, it fires.
The FlatScope would sit on an area of the visual cortex and look for flashes of light — from about a million neurons. Algorithms convert that pattern of flashing neurons into an image. That’s inspired by work members of the team have done on a project known as FlatCam, a lens-less camera about the thickness of a dime. However while that project worked in two dimensions, FlatScope needs to add three to see how neurons interact.
The team has already engineered a prototype of the device. So far, they’ve only used it to look at manufactured fluorescing samples, and it still depends on wires for power and to submit its data. But it can already zoom into about the scale required to look at individual neurons.
Once scientists know how neurons act processing visual cues, they must be able to flash light on individual neurons to form the pattern that matches the image they want the person to see — to restore sight to the blind.
Image Source: Rice University