Neural recording probe maps brains more accurately than ever before

Scientists have developed a needle-like device designed to be inserted into brains in order to track the activity of neurons.

The technology is supposedly much easier to use than existing methods and will hopefully give neuroscientists a greater degree of understanding of how different parts of the brain work together to process information.

The Neuropixels probe is thinner than a human hair

The ‘Neuropixels probe’ is capable of monitoring the neural activity at hundreds of different sites within the brain at one time by placing hundreds of recording electrodes across a large span of a rodent’s brain, so that researchers can collect more meaningful data in a single experiment than other technologies currently allow.

Neuropixels probes are expected to be available for purchase by research laboratories by mid-2018 and  will allow scientists to see hundreds of well resolved single neuron signal traces

The researchers have already recorded from more than 700 neurons using two Neuropixels probes.

With nearly 1,000 electrical sensors positioned along a probe thinner than a human hair but long enough to access many regions of a rodent’s brain simultaneously, the new technology could greatly accelerate neuroscience research, said Timothy Harris, leader of project and senior fellow at Janelia.

“You can [detect the activity of] large numbers of neurons from multiple brain regions with higher fidelity and much less difficulty,” he said.

There are currently more than 400 prototype Neuropixels probes in testing at research centres worldwide.

“At the Allen Institute for Brain Science, one of our chief goals is to decipher the cellular-level code used by the brain,” said Christof Koch, president at the Allen Institute for Brain Science.

“The Neuropixels probes represent a significant leap forward in measurement technology and will allow for the most precise understanding yet of how large coalitions of nerve cells coordinate to give rise to behaviour and cognition.”

“What we need to do as neuroscientists is to understand how a lot of neurons spread all over the brain work together,” said neuroscientist Matteo Carandini who worked on the prototype.

Close-up view of a silicon wafer containing multiple Neuropixels probes

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.

“As long as you place them appropriately, you can really study how different parts of the brain work together at the neuronal level. This is a game changer,” Carandini said.

Janelia group leader Albert Lee, whose team has also been using Neuropixels prototypes and providing feedback on their development, said the ability to collect data from many different brain regions simultaneously will also reduce the number of experiments needed to glean a big-picture view of what happens in the brain when an animal performs a particular task.

A single experiment can now replace a series of experiments each focused on a different brain region, he said.

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