Humanity may be on the cusp of an exciting new phase of neuroscience thanks to the development of highly sensitive silicon devices called Neuropixels probes.
Created by an international team including UCL and nanotechnology company imec, the probes are 10mm long and just 70×20µm wide – thinner than a human hair. Each one contains 960 recording sites, measuring the activity of hundreds of different neurons across multiple brain regions. According to the researchers, the probes will enable the study of more neurons simultaneously than ever before, and could provide insight on conditions such as Alzheimer’s and depression.
“To understand the brain we need to understand how a lot of neurons spread all over the brain work together,” said co-author Professor Matteo Carandini, from UCL’s Institute of Ophthalmology.
“Until recently, it was possible to measure the activity of individual neurons within a specific spot in the brain or to reveal larger, regional patterns of activity—but not to do both at the same time.”
Neuropixels probes automatically transform the brain’s electrical signals into digital data ready for computational analysis. Researchers at UCL have developed new data analytics tools to convert that data into meaningful information about the activity of individual brain cells.
Published in the journal Nature, the research describes how two of the probes were used to simultaneously record more than 700 well-isolated single neurons from five brain structures in a mouse. With some of the mice experiments lasting up to 150 days, the team also showed that the devices are suitable for long-term study.
The project has so far been funded by $5.5 million from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), the Allen Institute for Brain Science, the Gatsby Charitable Foundation and Wellcome. There are currently around 400 prototypes in testing at research centres worldwide, and from 2018 the Neuropixels probes will be available to neuroscientists at cost price.
“This is a significant step on the path to understanding how the brain works,” said Dr Andrew Welchman, Wellcome’s head of Neuroscience and Mental Health.
“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. Neuropixel probes will change what we know and even how we think about the brain. We still have a long way to go in uncovering the brain’s mysteries, but this new technology is an important development.”