Researchers use silicon electronics to improve brain chips

It is hoped the new designs will help patients with neurological conditions.
Written by Charlie Osborne, Contributing Writer

Silicon electronics are being developed to improve the structure and functionality of brain interface devices.

Implanted electrode devices, used to stimulate the brain and to house electrodes to reduce the severity of neurological problems including Parkinson's, epilepsy, hearing and sight loss and degenerative conditions, are relatively new.

Worldwide, it is estimated that only tens of thousands are in receipt of such devices as they are not only what researchers from the Columbia University, New York, call "extremely crude," but are also invasive, dangerous, and not always effective.

This month, a research team from Columbia Engineering said they have received a four-year $15.8 million grant from the US Department of Defense's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to develop new silicon electronics for use in implanted devices which will hopefully be far less invasive.

"The invention of a less invasive implant device with many more channels that can interact with the brain would result in revolutionary improvements to brain-machine interfaces, including direct interfaces to the auditory cortex and the visual cortex, expanding dramatically the ways in which artificial systems can support brain function," the team says.

Columbia Professor Ken Shepard is leading a team in the Neural Engineering System Design (NESD) program, which aims to research and create implanted brain-interface devices using silicon.

The team plans to create electrode architectures which are able to stimulate and record at the brain surface, and they must also be conformable, light, and flexible enough to move around with the tissue, rather than penetrate it.

The chips will also use wireless charging.

Shepard's team is not wasting time. It is hoped that they will be able to produce an implantable device at the scale of one million channels and be in the position to apply for regulatory approval for human testing at the end of the four-year project.

However, as this is a very aggressive timeline, the team says they will have to use the newest CMOS technologies currently available and established manufacturers to make this happen.


A flexible multielectrode array designed by Shepard and his team. If successful, this noninvasive device could alter the lives of people with hearing and visual impairments and neurodegenerative diseases.

Ken Shepard

"We think the only way to achieve this is to use an all-electrical approach that involves a massive surface-recording array with more than one million electrodes fabricated as a monolithic device on a single complementary metal-oxide-semiconductor (CMOS) integrated circuit," Shepard says. "We are working with the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC) as our foundry partner."

Researchers from the Baylor College of Medicine, California Institute of Technology, Duke University, New York University, Northwestern, and Medtronic are also contributing to the NESD scheme, which if successful, may revolutionize the treatment of degenerative neurological issues in the future.

"By using the state-of-the-art in silicon nanoelectronics and applying it in unusual ways, we are hoping to have big impact on brain-computer interfaces," said Shepard. "We have assembled a world-class team to translate our efforts to human use at the conclusion of this program."

See also: ANU researchers build 'brain-on-a-chip' for future brain prosthetics

Earlier this year, hospice charity Loros revealed a partnership with a virtual reality company to create videos and footage suitable for use in headsets for terminally ill patients.

It is hoped that end of life care can be improved by giving patients the option to escape the hospice environment for a while, even when physically leaving is not possible.

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