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Light-Activated Brain Electrodes in Development

brain stimulationgraphic

(Media News, Flickr)

10 Jan. 2020. A wireless electrode activated by light waves is being developed to connect with nerve cells in the brain that promises to make brain-computer connections safer. In December 2019, researchers at University of Pittsburgh received a five-year, $1.65 million award from National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, part of National Institutes of Health, to advance the technology.

Pittsburgh’s Bio-Integrating Optoelectric Neural Interface Cybernetics, or Bionic, lab led by bioengineering professor Takashi D-Y Kozai is developing the new type of electrode. Physicians today use implanted electrodes for neuron or nerve cell stimulation in the brain to treat some neurological disorders, and the use of electrodes to capture neural activity in the brain is being explored to interact with prosthetic limbs and help people with disabilities communicate with electronic devices.

As Kozai notes, today’s implanted electrodes come with safety risks. “Current electrical stimulation implants are tethered to the skull,” says Kozai in a university statement, “which leads to mechanical strain in the tissue, and in turn, causes chronic inflammation and increases the possibility of an infection.” And today’s implants can affect brain tissue, limiting their useful time spans. “Implantation of these devices causes a reactive tissue response,” adds Kozai, “which degrades the functional performance over time, thus limiting device capabilities.”

The Bionic lab studies materials such as fibers made from carbon nanotubes coated with bioactive polymers for improving the safety and performance of neural implants. The new project aims to develop what the lab calls wireless axons, tiny electrodes conducting electrical signals untethered by wires. The electrodes use these bioactive and nano-structured materials to promote transfer of signals to and from nerve cells. Because of their small size, the new electrodes can be implanted in areas of the brain that need stimulation.

In addition, the electrodes would be activated with near-infrared lasers that can penetrate brain tissue under some conditions, rather than hard-wired electrical signals. Laser beams interact with the electrode materials using the photoelectric effect, where particles of light break loose electrons from metals, such as carbon fibers. In a paper published in January 2019, a Bionic lab team demonstrated the feasibility of activating tiny carbon fiber electrodes with near-infrared lasers in the brains of lab mice.

The researchers believe the technology can lead to safer, better-targeted, high-quality electrodes for long-term implants. The new electrodes can encourage more use of nerve stimulation to treat neurological diseases and improved brain-computer links for prosthetic devices, as well as encourage advances in neuroscience.

“With this project,” says Kozai, “we hope to develop advanced neural probes that are capable of activating specific neurons for long periods of time and with great precision. This technology could significantly impact neuroscience research and ultimately the treatment of neurological injury and disease in humans.”

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