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Engineers developing self-powered brain activity recorders

Launched in 2013, the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative is designed to fund research that will ultimately revolutionize the understanding of the human brain, from individual cells to complex neural circuits.

Shantanu Chakrabartty
Shantanu Chakrabartty

The National Institutes of Health recently awarded a two-year, BRAIN Initiative grant to engineers at Washington University in St. Louis. Their goal: to develop a self-sustaining brain implant that can record neural activity patterns over the entire life of an organism.

"We want to be able to record the neural activity from the brain, but we are going to do it in a very unique way," said Shantanu Chakrabartty, professor of electrical & systems engineering at the School of Engineering & Applied Science.

Instead of directly powering the implant like other neurotechnologies, Chakrabartty plans to use electrical signals generated by the neurons as a power source. The device would continuously record neural activity patterns throughout an organism's lifespan. Since there is no need for external powering or any wireless transmission, the device could be significantly miniaturized to be implanted into the brain of an insect, perhaps someday even a human.

"It's like plugging a special jump-drive inside the brain," Chakrabartty said.
"You continuously log the data and then, when you retrieve the drive, you analyze the data and look for special events that might have occurred during the organism's life-span." These events could then be time correlated with events that are also recorded from other parts of the brain or from the brain of other organisms.

In collaboration with Baranidharan Raman, associate professor of biomedical engineering, the research team will first verify the operation of these devices in the brain of the locusts. Using controlled experiments, they will assess how reliably the devices can pick up neural activity specific to olfaction.

"We know that some traces of the neural activity will be present," Chakabartty said. "The challenge will be: Once we retrieve the device, can we reconstruct what happened? If so, we could ask and answer all sorts of new scientific questions about social interactions, since this tool will be able to measure neural activity when an organism is freely behaving in its natural environment."

The grant is award R21EY028362 from the National Eye Institute of the National Institutes of Health, as part of the BRAIN Initiative.


The School of Engineering & Applied Science at Washington University in St. Louis focuses intellectual efforts through a new convergence paradigm and builds on strengths, particularly as applied to medicine and health, energy and environment, entrepreneurship and security. With 94 tenured/tenure-track and 28 additional full-time faculty, 1,300 undergraduate students, 1,200 graduate students and 20,000 alumni, we are working to leverage our partnerships with academic and industry partners — across disciplines and across the world — to contribute to solving the greatest global challenges of the 21st century.