A new nerve-cell monitor will help those studying brains

SCIENCE is a mixture of the intellectual and the practical. And the practical requires tools. Until the invention of the telescope, astronomy had been stuck in a rut for millennia. Until the invention of the microscope, microbiology did not exist.

Neuroscience, too, has advanced recently on the back of some powerful tools, particularly techniques for scanning whole brains. But the devices that look at the nitty-gritty of how nerve cells themselves work are still Heath-Robinson affairs. These are the electrodes that record the impulses of individual cells, ideally simultaneously with lots of others, in order to try to work out how networks of cells process information.

That may change with a device described this week in Nature. The business end of Neuropixels, as the new tool is known, is a probe made in the way that computer chips are made, by photolithography. This probe (see picture) is 1cm long and 70 microns across—about the width of a human hair. It is capable of recording signals from 384 nerve cells at the same time. These signals are gathered individually by electrodes 12 microns across that cover the probe’s surface. The electrodes are made from titanium nitride, a material chosen because it is both amenable to photolithography and can survive for at least six months inside a…Continue reading

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