Designing New Nanoelectronic Threads to Track Neuron Activity in the Brain
The brain has been described as the “last frontier” in medical research, but despite recent advances in technology, the field has been dogged by difficulties with studying the activities of individual neurons. Instead, in order to study brain activity, neuroscientists have relied on a variety of indirect visualization techniques based on the principles of magnetic resonance imaging.1
However, a recent publication out of the University of Texas at Austin has the potential to facilitate significant advances in the field. Biomedical engineers and neuroscientists have teamed up to develop nanoelectronic thread (NET) brain probes that can reliably record neural activity without damaging surrounding tissues. The technology solves a variety of problems associated with previous methods of making electrophysiological recordings, and it has potential applications in both disease research and practical medical device development. As scientists look to build on preliminary findings and start looking for ways to design NET probes for specific applications, modern data analysis and aggregation software can support research and development efforts.
Overcoming the Problems of Current Neuronal Recording Devices
There are several aspects of today’s neural tracking technology that are holding the field back when it comes to understanding the electrical activities of neurons. When implanted, existing probes just don’t integrate well with the brain. But the researchers at UT Austin have addressed these challenges in several key ways:
- Increasing flexibility
Traditional neuronal probes are mechanically stiff. This causes irritation in surrounding glial cells, which leads to the development of scar tissue that disrupts recordings and interferes with data collection. By creating NET probes that are much more flexible, the researchers are able to implant them without damaging surrounding tissue. At the same time, the probes must be stiff enough to stay in place, so they won’t be easily dislodged and end up in the wrong part of the brain.2
- Reducing size
Another reason why traditional neuronal probes agitate glial cells and elicit the production of scar tissue is that they are relatively large. To deal with this problem, the UT Austin research team significantly reduced the size of the neural probe it designed: the current model is the only 10 microns long and 1 micron in thickness, with a cross-section that is smaller than that of another neuron or blood capillary. As a result, NET probes do not damage neurons or surrounding tissues.3
- Extending longevity and reliability
Another reason why neuroscientists have not been able to fully explore certain topics of interest in the field, such as disease progression, is that conventional technologies are unable to provide accurate readings over long periods. Although traditional electrodes can monitor overall brain activity over several months, their reliability degrades overtime, and they can only track the electrical activity of individual neurons for a few days at a time. The new probes displace less tissue, which enhances the stability of recordings, so it is finally possible for scientists to get accurate data for months at a time.
Exploring the Applications of Tissue-Compatible Neuronal Probes
The study that the UT Austin researchers released, although preliminary, has the potential for far-reaching applications. In terms of disease research, scientists may be able to use the technology to study several types of brain-related diseases. For instance, the older, larger, less flexible probes have caused “leaks” in the surrounding vasculature in the past, making it difficult to study neurovascular conditions like stroke. With NET probes, scientists can better understand stroke, and also explore possible prevention and treatment methods. Similarly, because NET probes allow for reliable recordings over long periods of time, it will be easier for researchers to examine changes in brain activity that result from neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease.
As researchers look to design and implant probes specifically for these kinds of studies, it will be essential to consider both the nature of the biological conditions being studied and the physics of device implantation. Modern software makes it possible to access previous results from disparate databases, so scientists can quickly and easily find the information they need to make experimental decisions, no matter which field it comes from. Plus, the filtering capabilities of this technology make it possible to explore the implications of results from both biological and engineering standpoints.
Another area in which the NET probe technology might be applied is in the creation of neuromotor prosthetic technology. Over the last decade, neuroscientists have been working toward the development of neuromotor prostheses for patients who are paralyzed. The idea behind this technology is that prosthetic devices would be able to respond to brain signals, making them far more effective and lifelike.4 Since the new neuronal probes can be implanted without tissue damage and are effective for long periods, they could be ideal for inclusion into such devices.
Of course, the realization of this technology will require significant collaboration between neuroscientists and biomedical engineers, not to mention insights from practitioners like doctors, physical therapists and occupational therapists. Therefore, as researchers look to integrate NET probes into neuromotor prostheses, they will rely heavily on collaborative software that makes it easy for multiple parties to access, analyze and contribute to experimental datasets.
BIOVIA ScienceCloud offers secure collaborative project management and the ability to share project information (whether structured data or documents) using a unique social networking approach to scientific collaboration. It is also a flexible, multi-disciplinary, low-cost-of-ownership electronic lab notebook that empowers sponsor organizations and network partners to capture and share experimental methods. Contact us today to learn more about this software and our other offerings.
- “The Brain’s Highways: Mapping the Last Frontier,” May 22, 2012, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/brains-highways-mapping-last-frontier/ ↩
- “New, Ultra-Flexible Probes Form Reliable, Scar-Free Integration with the Brain,” February 15, 2017, https://cns.utexas.edu/news/new-ultra-flexible-probes-form-reliable-scar-free-integration-with-the-brain ↩
- “Ultraflexible nanoelectronic probes form reliable, glial scar-free neural integration,” February 15, 2017, http://advances.sciencemag.org/content/3/2/e1601966 ↩
- “Neuronal ensemble control of prosthetic devices by a human with tetraplegia,” July 13, 2006, http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v442/n7099/full/nature04970.html ↩