Chinese neural probe could have ‘transformative impact’ on brain-computer interfaces

Bold new Chinese research in the field of neural probes has helped break through the boundaries that separate humans and machines, and could have a “transformative impact” on brain-computer interface (BCI) technologies, an expert said.

Researchers at Peking University and the Shenzhen-Hong Kong Institute of Brain Science have used a device called a Neuroscroll probe to separate single neural activities of macaque monkeys from 1,024 tightly spaced channels simultaneously.

Neural probes are needle-shaped electrical sensors that receive and measure brain activity and are essential tools in advancing brain science research and BCIs, which work by establishing a direct communication pathway between the brain and an external device, resulting in tangible action brought about by thought.

The key to the BCI performance lies in the accurate capture and decoding of a large number of EEG signals – or electroencephalography.

“The Neuroscroll probe length is easily tunable for individual probes from 10mm (0.4 inch) to 90mm, covering the brain sizes of non-human primates and humans, and the probes remain intact and functional after repeated bending deformations,” the team wrote in a peer-reviewed paper published in Nature Neuroscience on Monday.

The probe also achieved stable neural recordings in rat brains for up to two years, showing excellent biocompatibility and long-term recording stability, state news agency Xinhua reported.

Cheng Heping, with the Chinese Academy of Sciences, has hailed the Neuroscroll probe as a powerful new tool in neuroscience. Photo: SCMP

Cheng Heping, with the Chinese Academy of Sciences and director of the National Centre for Biomedical Imaging Science at Peking University, told Xinhua that the achievement provided a powerful tool for high-throughput simultaneous monitoring of activity in multiple brain regions, and for exploring the relationships between neural activity and behaviour.

Neural probe implants could advance neural recording from thousands to tens of thousands of channels, which would have a transformative impact on translational neuroscience research and BCI, said Cheng, who was not part of the study, but is familiar with the research.

The Chinese government has identified BCI as an area of focus in the development of future technologies amid the competition for tech supremacy with US-led Western countries.

Elon Musk’s Neuralink is developing implantable, ultra-high bandwidth brain–machine interfaces to connect humans and computers. Photo: Neuralink

According to a joint-ministerial announcement in January, Chinese research on BCI will aim to achieve breakthroughs in key technologies and core devices such as brain-computer fusion and “user-friendly and safe brain-computer interface products”, and encourage exploration in areas like medical rehabilitation, self-driving and virtual reality.

China is attempting to close a gap with the United States in BCI technologies. Neuralink, a BCI pioneer co-founded in 2016 by billionaire Elon Musk, hosted a live stream in March during which a quadriplegic patient, who became the first human patient to have a Neuralink chip implanted in his brain, moved a cursor across a laptop screen and played online chess using only his thoughts.

Neuralink’s integrated circuit has a 1,536-channel recording system.



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