Pulse 41: Neuropixels May Read and Write to the Brain

14 November 2017
Giulio Prisco

Neuropixel Brain Pixels

According to research results published last week (see below), next-generation brain mapping probes dubbed Neuropixels will allow scientists to understand the brain at a level of detail and at a scale that previously seemed impossible. The tiny super-sensitive electrodes on the Neuropixels can record the activity of hundreds of individual neurons from multiple brain regions, in real time, in long-duration experiments with freely moving animals.

“To give a basic analogy, these probes move us from the era of small black and white TV sets, to large, high-resolution flat screen displays,” said Andrew Welchman, Wellcome’s Head of Neuroscience and Mental Health.

The Economist notes that, contrary to current generation probes, the Neuropixels can just be plugged into the brain being studied, and this ease of use is what gives the new technology an important edge. “A more fundamental change will be to move from the current one-way read-only Neuropixels to two-way probes that can not only read but also transmit to neurons, by emitting impulses of light or electricity,” notes The Financial Times.

In 2018, Neuropixels will be available at cost price to neuroscientists across the globe. It seems likely that further development of Neuropixels technology could, one day, permit reading highly detailed information from the brain and writing new information into the brain, which could have a  truly science-fictional impact.

Neuropixels record the activity of hundreds of individual neurons in real time. Scientists on an international research team have developed a new device to map the activity of complex neural networks in the brain, in real time. A study published in Nature shows that tiny silicon probes dubbed Neuropixels, thinner than a human hair and produced with a combination of high-performance electrode technology and scalable chip fabrication methods, opens a path towards recording of brain-wide neural activity. The Neuropixels can simultaneously record the activity of hundreds of neurons across multiple different brain regions in mice and rats, which is a breakthrough improvement over existing brain mapping technologies.

A promising mathematical model for cancer immunotherapy. Researchers at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai have created a mathematical model that can predict how a cancer patient will benefit from certain immunotherapies. Two research papers published in Nature [1, 2] show that the mathematical model is more accurate than previous genomic biomarkers in predicting how the tumor will respond to immunotherapy, and could help design therapies for patients who do not typically respond to immunotherapy.

New technique rejuvenates old cells and lengthens telomeres. Scientists at the University of Exeter have discovered a new way to rejuvenate inactive old cells by switching back on, with chemicals, genes called splicing factors that are progressively switched off as we age. As a result, the old cells not only look physically younger, but start to behave more like young cells and start dividing. A study published in BMC Cell Biology indicates that, within hours of treatment, the older cells started to divide, and had longer telomeres - the 'caps' on the chromosomes which shorten as we age. The researchers are persuaded that the discovery has the potential to lead to therapies which could help people age better, without experiencing some of the degenerative effects of getting old.

Advances in tissue engineering for artificial personal hearts. Researchers at Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology (EMPA) have created functioning muscle fibers with a spraying process, moving one step closer to the capability to engineer artificial hearts, which is the goal of the Zurich Heart project of University Medicine Zurich, a research collaboration of which EMPA is a partner. A research paper published in Acta Biomaterialia describes how the EMPA researchers have succeeded in letting cells develop into muscle fibers in a three-dimensional synthetic polymer scaffold. According to the scientists, the research could lead to the ability to grow personalized hearts for patients, tolerated by the immune system.

Stem cells could restore hearing to deaf patients. Scientists at Rutgers University have advanced toward the capability to restore hearing by injecting stem cells into the inner ear. The researchers have found ways to turn stem cells into auditory neurons that could reverse deafness, while preventing the cells from dividing too quickly, posing a cancer risk. A study published in Stem Cell Reports describes how the scientists over-expressed a gene called NEUROG1 to turn inner ear stem cells into auditory neurons, and shows that chemicals can reduce unwanted stem cell proliferation in lab tissue samples.

Toward new therapies for glaucoma and other neurodegenerative diseases. Researchers at UC Berkeley have discovered that naturally occurring molecules known as lipid mediators have the potential to halt the progression of glaucoma, the world’s second-leading cause of blindness. The research results, published in Journal of Clinical Investigation, indicate that inflammation-regulating lipid mediators known as lipoxins stopped the degeneration of retinal cells in rats and mice with glaucoma. The scientists are persuaded that this discovery could lead to drugs to treat not only glaucoma but also other neurodegenerative diseases.

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