New brain implant can manipulate cells with the tap of a button on smartphones

6 Aug 2019

The device uses Lego-like replaceable drug cartridges and Bluetooth low-energy. Image: Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology

Scientists have unveiled a new brain implant, controlled through a smartphone, that could quickly detect a variety of brain diseases.

Researchers in the US and South Korea have teamed up to invent a brain implant that could speed up efforts to uncover brain diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, as well as addiction, depression and pain.

In a paper published to Nature Biomedical Engineering, the international team said the device can control neural circuits using the readily available power of a smartphone. It does this through Lego-like replaceable drug cartridges and Bluetooth that can target specific neurons using medication and light.

Raza Qazi, lead author of the study, said this technology has never been achieved before and far surpasses treatments used today. Typically, neuroscientists use rigid metal tubes and optical fibres to deliver drugs and light.

Aside from limiting the patient’s movement as a result of being hooked up to such bulky equipment, their rigid structure causes lesions to develop in soft brain tissue over time. While wireless and soft probes have been developed in the past, they have been limited by their inability to deliver drugs for long periods of time

Possible therapeutics

The crucial problem to solve in this latest invention, the team said, was that of the exhaustion and evaporation of drugs. This led the researchers from the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology and the University of Washington in Seattle to develop the ‘plug-and-play’ cartridges assembled into a brain implant for mice with a soft and ultrathin probe that has the thickness of a human hair.

These consist of microfluidic channels and tiny LEDs – smaller than a grain of salt – for unlimited drug doses and light delivery. Meanwhile, the smartphone interface has been made relatively simple, allowing for the easy triggering of any specific combination or precise sequencing of light and drug deliveries in any implanted target animal without the need to be physically inside the lab.

The team is also hopeful that, in the short-term, the device could be used for automated animal studies where behaviour of one animal could positively or negatively affect behaviour in other animals by conditional triggering of light and/or drug delivery.

“It allows us to better dissect the neural circuit basis of behaviour, and how specific neuromodulators in the brain tune behaviour in various ways,” said Michael Bruchas of the research team.

“We are also eager to use the device for complex pharmacological studies, which could help us develop new therapeutics for pain, addiction, and emotional disorders.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic