Brain-Inspired Wireless System Taps Into Salt-Sized Sensors

Brown University researchers just developed a novel approach for a wireless network that efficiently transmits, receives, and decodes data from microelectronic chips the size of a grain of salt. Their research is published in Nature Electronics.

The team designed the sensor network so the chips can be implanted into a body or integrated into wearable devices. Each tiny silicon sensor mimics how neurons in the brain communicate through spikes of electrical activity and detect specific events as spikes and transmit that data wirelessly in real time using radio waves.

According to Jihun Lee, a postdoctoral researcher at Brown and study lead author. “Neurons do not fire all the time. They compress data and fire sparsely so that they are very efficient. We are mimicking that structure here in our wireless telecommunication approach. The sensors would not be sending out data all the time — they’d just be sending relevant data as needed as short bursts of electrical spikes, and they would be able to do so independently of the other sensors and without coordinating with a central receiver. By doing this, we would manage to save a lot of energy and avoid flooding our central receiver hub with less meaningful data.”

This RF scheme also makes the system scalable and solves a common problem with current sensor communication networks: they all need to be perfectly synced to work well.

The researchers say the work may one day help shape how scientists collect and interpret information from these little silicon devices, especially since electronic sensors have become ubiquitous because of modern technology.

The events the sensors identify and transmit can be specific occurrences such as changes in the environment they are monitoring, including temperature fluctuations or the presence of certain substances.

The sensors are able to use as little energy as they do because external transceivers supply wireless power to the sensors as they transmit their data. This ability to operate without needing to be plugged into a power source or battery make them convenient and versatile for use in many different situations.

The researchers demonstrated the efficiency of their system as well as just how much it could potentially be scaled up. They tested using 78 sensors in the lab and found they were able to collect and send data with few errors, even when the sensors were transmitting at different times. Through simulations, they were able to show how to decode data collected from the brains of primates using about 8,000 hypothetically implanted sensors.

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