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02/18/94

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Nervy silicon: The interface between nerves and chips

STANFORD -- Considerable progress is being made in connecting nerves to chips and chips to nerves, but it will be a few years yet before practical applications of this technology are likely to emerge.

That is the message of physician and electrical engineer Gregory T. A. Kovacs to listeners at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in San Francisco on Wednesday, Feb. 23.

Kovacs, an assistant professor at Stanford University's Center for Integrated Systems, summarized recent developments made at the center and at other institutions in this rapidly growing field.

Researchers are currently exploring three different types of interfaces between chips and neurons, he reported:

  • Needlelike cortical probes inserted into the brain to record nerve activity at different locations and depths are allowing researchers to map brain activity associated with various types of activities.
  • Silicon chips perforated with microscopic holes that nerves grow through have been developed to measure the activity of peripheral nerves. They are being developed for basic research in hopes of providing more natural control of prosthetic limbs.
  • "Electric petri dishes" - flat silicon plates covered with sensors upon which neurons can be grown - are being developed as extremely sensitive neurotoxin sensors as well as being used in efforts to make neural networks.

While the area has tremendous potential, a number of technical problems remain to be solved, Kovacs said. For example, packaging and wiring problems have not been solved adequately for human implantation.

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