DARPA turns its attention to atom-wide brain sensors

DARPA, known half-jokingly as the Department of Mad Scientists, has again turned its attention to the human brain, this time hoping to expand our insight into it and its structure through the use of incredibly tiny (read: atom-sized) graphene sensors. It detailed its latest effort on Monday, explaining its work in conjunction with the University of Wisconsin at Madison to create a new form of technology for peering into how the brain functions. This is done as part of President Obama's brain initiative, says the research agency.

The aforementioned graphene sensors measure in at 4 atoms thick, which DARPA says is hundreds of times smaller than the contacts that are currently used. This slim size is a benefit due not only to its relatively non-invasive nature, but also its non-toxic status and ability to let almost all light pass through (making them more or less transparent).

This is vital for furthering the use of optical techniques as a complementary monitoring process to traditionally used electrical monitoring processes. Optical monitoring uses photons rather than electrons, and expands researchers' abilities to understand how the brain and neural networks function.

Combining these two technologies would have the greatest potential, says DARPA, but also comes with the biggest barrier: the electrodes currently available to researchers, which aren't able to function with optical techniques. This is where the graphene sensors come in, bypassing that barrier and allowing both techniques to be utilized.