In the mammalian nervous system, billions of neurons connected by quadrillions of synapses exchange electrical, chemical and mechanical signals. Disruptions to this network manifest as neurological or psychiatric conditions. Despite decades of neuroscience research, our ability to treat or even to understand these conditions is limited by the capability of tools to probe the signalling complexity of the nervous system. Although orders of magnitude smaller and computationally faster than neurons, conventional substrate-bound electronics do not recapitulate the chemical and mechanical properties of neural tissue. This mismatch results in a foreign-body response and the encapsulation of devices by glial scars, suggesting that the design of an interface between the nervous system and a synthetic sensor requires additional materials innovation. Advances in genetic tools for manipulating neural activity have fuelled the demand for devices that are capable of simultaneously recording and controlling individual neurons at unprecedented scales. Recently, flexible organic electronics and bio- and nanomaterials have been developed for multifunctional and minimally invasive probes for long-term interaction with the nervous system. In this Review, we discuss the design lessons from the quarter-century-old field of neural engineering, highlight recent materials-driven progress in neural probes and look at emergent directions inspired by the principles of neural transduction.