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Scientists from China and the US have found a pioneering way to inject a tiny electronic mesh sensor into the brain that fully integrates with cerebral matter and enables computers to monitor brain activity.
Researchers from Harvard and the National Center for Nanoscience and Technology in Beijing have succeeded in inventing a flexible electrical circuit that fits inside a 0.1mm-diameter glass syringe in a water-based solution.
When injected into the brains of mice, the mesh unfurled to 30 times its size and mouse brain cells grew around the mesh, forming connections with the wires in the flexible mesh circuit. The biochemical mouse brain completely accepted the mechanical component and integrated with it without any damage being caused to the mouse.
The mice who received the implants are thriving and while today they need to be connected by a wire to the computer so their brain activity can be monitored, in the future this could be wireless, and the same technique could be used to integrate an electric mesh with a human brain.
The research, entitled Syringe-injectable electronics, is published in the journal Nature Nanotechnology.
What is neural lace?
Neural lace is a concept first coined in The Culture, a series of sci-fi books written by Iain M Banks, where humans living on another planet install genetically engineered glands in their brains that can secrete stimulants, psychedelics and sedatives any time they like.
The concept has proved so popular that even the Halo video game plotlines feature soldiers who have had neural lace implanted into the base of their skulls, so they show up on radar as friends or foes.
At the moment, electric shock treatment is available for patients suffering from severe muscle spasms, whereby long wires are inserted deep into the brain, but this approach is only used in worst case scenarios, as any type of incision risks damaging the brain.
But if the neural lace is able to completely integrate with the human brain, this would enable doctors to treat all sorts of neurodegenerative diseases that are currently difficult to cure.
The beginning of the true human cyborgs
But there's also the sci-fi element of cyborgs – humans that have electronic parts in them –becoming a reality, as well as the concept of humans having brains that can instantly tap into infinite knowledge, such as the plot in the Scarlett Johansson film Lucy.
So-called cyborgs do exist in the world, but only to the extent of being patients fitted with bionic limbs or people who choose to have microchips implanted into their bodies, whereas an electronic mesh in the brain connected to a computer would be another ballpark completely.
According to The Smithsonian, the US Air Force has funded part of the study as part of its Cyborgcell programme, which wants to create small-scale electronics for the "performance enhancement" of cells.
Charles Lieber, a nanotechnologist at Harvard University and co-author of the study, said: "We're trying to blur the distinction between electronic circuits and neural circuits."