Scalable nanoprobes could bring ‘cyborgs to reality’

In research that could bring ‘cyborgs to reality’ an Anglo-American team has produced scalable nanoprobe arrays that can record the inner workings of human cardiac cells and primary neurons.

U-shaped nanowires can record electrical chatter inside a brain or heart cell without causing any damage. The devices are 100 times smaller than their biggest competitors, which kill a cell after recording. Credit: Lieber Group, Harvard University

In a paper published by Nature Nanotechnology, scientists from Surrey University’s Advanced Technology Institute (ATI) and Harvard University detail how they produced an array of U-shaped nanowire field-effect transistor probes for intracellular recording. This structure was used to record the inner activity of primary neurons and other electrogenic cells, and the device is claimed to have the capacity for multi-channel recordings.

According to ATI, the ability to read electrical activities from cells is the foundation of many biomedical procedures, such as brain activity mapping and neural prosthetics. Developing new tools for intracellular electrophysiology that push the limits of what is physically possible while reducing invasiveness could provide a deeper understanding of electrogenic cells and their networks in tissues, as well as new directions for human-machine interfaces, the team claims.

In a statement, Dr Yunlong Zhao from ATI said:  “If our medical professionals are to continue to understand our physical condition better and help us live longer, it is important that we continue to push the boundaries of modern science in order to give them the best possible tools to do their jobs. For this to be possible, an intersection between humans and machines is inevitable.

“Our ultra-small, flexible, nanowire probes could be a very powerful tool as they can measure intracellular signals with amplitudes comparable with those measured with patch clamp techniques; with the advantage of the device being scalable, it causes less discomfort and no fatal damage to the cell. Through this work, we found clear evidence for how both size and curvature affect device internalisation and intracellular recording signal.”

Prof Charles Lieber from the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology at Harvard University said: “This work represents a major step towards tackling the general problem of integrating ‘synthesised’ nanoscale building blocks into chip and wafer scale arrays, and thereby allowing us to address the long-standing challenge of scalable intracellular recording.

“The beauty of science to many, ourselves included, is having such challenges to drive hypotheses and future work. In the longer term, we see these probe developments adding to our capabilities that ultimately drive advanced high-resolution brain-machine interfaces and perhaps eventually bringing cyborgs to reality.”