Generating buzz at this week's Society for Neuroscience meeting in Washington, D.C., are various applications for a new generation of tiny electrodes. Scientists hope they will help doctors see and understand the brain better.

A University of Pennsylvania professor is part of a team presenting data on a thin, flexible membrane now in development. It will be fitted out with enough of the electrodes to give scientists a new understanding of what causes epileptic seizures.

Before patients undergo brain surgery for certain types of hard-to-treat epilepsy, surgeons need to understand where the seizures are originating.

So they implant a plastic mat threaded with electrodes onto the brain to get a picture of electrical activity for a few weeks.

The electrodes are relatively large, and require lots of wires, so not many can be placed on the brain at once.

"They're sort of like trying to figure out what's going on on the streets of Manhattan by holding a microphone from a helicopter that's way above the city," said Brian Litt, a neurology and bioengineering professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

He and a team of colleagues, including the study's lead author Jonathan Viventi of New York University, have designed a new version. This super-thin membrane is embedded with 360 tiny electrodes in about the space of one of the old ones. The membrane can mold into the nooks and crannies of the brain to give a more complete picture.

"Now you're right over the crowd and you've got a whole array of microphones," Litt said. "And you're interviewing individual people, or at least groups of people."

Litt's team tested the device on animals and wants to start human trials within a year.

John Donoghue, director of Brown University's Institute for Brain Science, said it's an exciting time for brain imaging.

"It's a whole missing picture that we're beginning to look at in humans," Donoghue said. "We've done this kind of thing at high resolution in animals for a while, but we haven't had this kind of picture in humans, so this provides the opportunity to sort of look at this more microscopic scale."

In humans, Donoghue has demonstrated implantable electrodes that show promise in allowing paralyzed people to control prosthetic limbs with their brains.