How to make sense of the brain's billions of neurons

A unique global collaboration has produced a new technology that will transform the way we study the brain. Neuropixels allow simultaneous recordings from many hundreds of neurons over multiple brain regions.

Illustration of neuropixel probe in brain

Credit: Julia Kuhl

The first generation of neuropixel probes has been released to scientists worldwide.

To even begin to understand the complexities of the brain we need to measure the concerted activity of countless single neurons all over the brain at the same time. Until recently, no one thought that was possible.

The Neuropixels probes are thinner than a human hair, each with 960 recording sites and 384 channels that produce high-definition, high-quality data about brain activity. The tiny, super-sensitive electrodes record the pulse of multiple neurons and then digitise those signals.

Tim Harris, senior fellow at the Janelia Research Campus, led the collaboration of brain scientists and engineers to create the probes.

The engineering had three phases:

  • finding a new material for the probe and testing it for performance and stability
  • testing the programmable technology in the probe's shank and the electronics in its base
  • testing the fully integrated probe.

Matteo Carandini led one of the UCL laboratories that tested the prototypes and contributed the code most other labs use to interpret the probes' output.

He says that the scientific challenge – how to record hundreds of individual neurons in many different regions of the mouse brain – was huge. But in one respect it was simple.

"The tool did not exist, so it had to be built. Sometimes it's necessary to seek new technologies, and to go beyond the confines of the laboratory."

Shared risk, shared benefits

The scale of the collaboration has been integral to the success of the project. It would have been a very risky project for a single laboratory. Collaboration has meant that not only are the work and benefits shared, but also the risk.

And collaboration also has huge scientific benefits. "Both within the lab and across labs, other people invariably come up with better solutions. In fact, often they already know the solutions," says Matteo. "All you need to do is ask them."

Watch Professors Anne Churchland and Matteo Carandini explain how the probes will record and share data in real time.

Initially, the probes will be used on the brains of mice. A project is being planned to produce a probe for recording in non-human primates.

It's likely that one day these kind of probes will be inserted into the brain of human patients, for example people who are completely paralysed and need to move robotic arms through the brain activity. This is still fairly far away. But ambitious research to finesse the next generation of probes is already underway.

"Neuropixels will advance the understanding of the function of individual brain regions, but most especially the coordinated activity of multiple brain regions."
Tim Harris, senior fellow, Janelia Research Campus

Collectively, different labs can finally look at what is happening throughout an entire mouse brain and this could radically alter our existing knowledge about which brain regions are involved in different behaviours, and how brain disorders alter our neural circuits.