Some of the most devastating health conditions humans can face (Alzheimer’s, stroke, Parkinson’s, and a variety of other neurovascular diseases and diseases involving degeneration of brain tissue) happen inside the brain. They can’t be cured until they are understood, and they can’t be understood until they have been examined. But examining what is happening inside the brain is one of the greatest challenges academic medicine faces because, however small and flexible probes for use in the brain have been in the past, they are still far too big and (by a long way) not flexible enough.
Academic medicine is changing this. The University of Texas at Austin has a team dedicated to the design and production of an entirely new type and family of brain probes. These new probes are, mechanically, as close to the nature of the brain tissue they are designed to move among as it is possible to imagine – and far, far closer than anything in current use. They are also 1000 times more flexible than the probes now available.
What scientists need to know is: what is actually happening inside the brain? And they need to know it at the level of the individual neuron – which, bearing in mind that the number of neurons (nerve cells) in the average human brain is 100 billion, and that they are indescribably and unimaginably tiny, is a huge ask and one that, to date, has been incapable of achievement.
It is expected that the new University of Texas probes will change that. The activity of the neurons is electrical, and there will be no complete understanding of what happens in the brain until the nature, direction and longevity of each single electrical charge in each single neuron can be measured. That measurement, without any agitation or disruption of the brain’s normal behavior, is what the new probes are designed to do.