The human brain largely remains a black box: How the network of fast-moving electrical signals turns into thought, movement and disease remains poorly understood. But it is electrical, so it can be hacked—the question is finding a precise, easy way to manipulate electrical signaling between neurons.
A new University of Chicago study shows how tiny, light-powered wires could be fashioned out of silicon to provide these electrical signals. Published Feb. 19 in Nature Nanotechnology (“Photoelectrochemical modulation of neuronal activity with free-standing coaxial silicon nanowires”), the study offers a new avenue to shed light on—and perhaps someday treat—brain disorders.
Ten years ago, the science world was alive with speculation about a recently discovered technique called optogenetics, which would manipulate neural activity with light. The problem is that it has to be done with genetics: inserting a gene into a target cell that would make it respond to light. Other ways of modulating neurons have since been suggested, but a perfect alternative remains elusive.
A team led by Asst. Prof. Bozhi Tian built minuscule wires previously designed for solar cells. These nanowires are so small that hundreds of them could sit side by side on the edge of a sheet of paper—putting them on the same scale as the parts of cells they’re trying to communicate with.