Imagine a future where a swarm of nano-sized probes are voyaging through the bloodstream for intracellular recordings, mapping brain activity and performing other diagnostics. Looks like the future is here, thanks to a new research from the University of Surrey and Harvard University.
Much of the interest in nanotechnology stems from the unique quantum and surface phenomena that matter exhibits at the nanoscale. As the majority of the atoms in these nanostructures are a short distance from the surface, the optical and electrical properties of these systems can be strongly modified by changes in their environment, allowing a host of applications, particularly in sensing.
In recent years the techniques for growing and fabricating nanoscale materials have matured to the point where researchers are able to tailor their properties toward particular applications, such as metal nanoparticles, metal oxide nanowires and carbon nanotubes for a range of applications including physical, chemical and environmental sensors, energy scavenging materials, low-cost transparent conductors and optoelectronic devices.
Non-Invasive Nano Probing
The existing nanodevices have a trade-off between scalability and recording amplitudes. In an attempt to address this, the researchers at the University of Surrey and Harvard developed a scalable nanowire field-effect transistor probe arrays with controllable tip geometry and sensor size, which enable recording of up to 100 mV intracellular action potentials from primary neurons.
Through this work, clear evidence has been found for how both size and curvature affect device internalisation and intracellular recording signal.
The above figure consists of the (i) Side view schematic of the probe/cell; (ii) Top view optical image of probe/cell, showing single U-NWFET(U-shaped NanoWire Field Effect Transistor) probe recording from one neuron.
Dr Yunlong Zhao who played a key role behind this research observes that these 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.
Moreover, this device comes with the advantage of being scalable and causes less discomfort and no fatal damage to the cell.
New tools such as these for intracellular electrophysiology that push the limits of spatiotemporal resolution while reducing invasiveness could provide a deeper understanding of electrogenic cells and their networks in tissues, and push progress towards human-machine interfaces.
These probe developments adding to existing capabilities can ultimately drive advanced high-resolution brain-machine interfaces and perhaps eventually bringing cyborgs to reality.
Nanotechnology and Artificial Intelligence are two domains which will have significant implications on the future of humans. As AI offers assistance to our intangible intelligence through its uncanny pattern recognition, nanomaterials will be more direct and personal bridging the gap between these diverse fields will open up new avenues.
For instance, the nanoprobes scan the cells for unwanted mutations and send the signals to a model which runs on a machine learning algorithm that is trained to classify a cell as cancerous or not. A feedback loop can be accommodated where the results of the machine learning algorithm will direct the probe to destroy the cancerous cell- a classic case of nanomedicine.
As we are yet to understand the full functionality of the human brain, a collaboration of nanotransistors that probe neurons and a neural network that devours this vast amounts of data can help in the diagnosis of neurological diseases like Alzheimer's and Parkinson’s.
As a healthy one is the primary focus of many medical researchers, the success of the methods such as discussed above will encourage more research and push the boundaries of modern science. For this to be possible, an intersection between humans and machines looks almost inevitable.
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