DARPA-backed team creates ultrasound-based neuromodulation implants

DARPA's former headquarters in Arlington, VA

DARPA-backed scientists have tested tiny ultrasound-based implants in rodents, which, if it translates to humans, could potentially surmount multiple hurdles in human neuromodulation.

The agency’s Electrical Prescriptions, or ElectRx, program aims to improve neuromodulation by overcoming challenges, such as making implants suitable for long-term use and implants small enough to use in small nerves.

A DARPA-funded team led by University of California, Berkeley scientists developed a safe wireless neuromodulation devices that are small enough to be implanted in individual nerves, DARPA said in a statement. They tested the implants, dubbed “neural dust,” in rodents.The findings were published this week in the journal Neuron.


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Each “neural dust mote” comprises two electrodes to measure nerve signals, a transistor that amplifies the signal and a piezoelectric crystal that has two functions: wirelessly transferring the data to an external transceiver board and converting mechanical energy from externally generated ultrasound into electrical energy for the implant to work.

The piezoelectric crystal means that the implants do not need batteries, thereby eliminating the need for further surgeries. And using ultrasound rather than traditional radio waves for communication and power brings other advantages too: “By using ultrasound to communicate with the neural dust, the sensors can be made smaller and placed deeper inside the body, by needle injection or other non-surgical approaches,” said Doug Weber, program manager for ElectRx, in the statement.

The team made the “neural dust” devices, which measure 0.8 mm by 3 mm by 1 mm, from commercially available parts. But they could go even smaller if they had custom parts, they said. The team will now develop even smaller “neural dust” implants, focusing on biocompatibility, portability of the transceiver board and ensuring the system can distinguish between signals when multiple sensors are implanted close to each other, such as within a nerve bundle.

- here's the statement

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