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Surrey Uni boffins take us a step closer to the cyberpunk future with cell-scanning nanotech

Scalable probe manufacturing process a boon for medicine, human-computer interfaces

Boffins at the University of Surrey are working on a novel method of scanning cells for information – they claim to have developed a scalable manufacturing process for U-shaped nanowire field-effect transistor probes, which were then successfully used to record the inner activity of human cells that generate electricity.

Since our nervous system is powered by electricity, such probes could eventually lead to the creation of better human-machine interfaces – think cybernetic augmentation and controlling computers with your mind.

"If our medical professionals are to continue to understand our physical condition better and help us live longer, it is important that we continue to push the boundaries of modern science in order to give them the best possible tools to do their jobs. For this to be possible, an intersection between humans and machines is inevitable," said Dr Yunlong Zhao, lecturer in energy storage and bioelectronics at Surrey's Advanced Technology Institute (ATI).

The team worked with their colleagues from Harvard to create nanoparticles that can read electrical signals from human cardiac cells and primary neurons at up to 100 millivolts.

They say their U-shaped probes offer controllable tip geometry and sensor size, "great clarity" of recording and a very important advantage over competing approaches – not killing the cell afterwards.

Reading electrical activities of cells is nothing new in medicine. A cell can be understood and described as an electrical circuit, and this property has enabled us to map the brain and create neural prosthetics.

The use of nanotechnology for this purpose is also not a new idea. The interface between cells and nanostructures is a hot topic, and several approaches already exist.

The primary innovation developed at Surrey is the manufacturing process that the researchers claim delivers reliable yields of nanoprobes using something called "spatially defined semiconductor-to-metal transformation".

"This work represents a major step towards tackling the general problem of integrating 'synthesized' nanoscale building blocks into chip and wafer scale arrays, and thereby allowing us to address the long-standing challenge of scalable intracellular recording," said professor Charles Lieber from the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology at Harvard.

"In the longer term, we see these probe developments adding to our capabilities that ultimately drive advanced high-resolution brain-machine interfaces and perhaps eventually bringing cyborgs to reality."

The probes and the manufacturing process are described in a paper published in Nature Nanotechnology. ®

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