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Brain Signal Synchronization Device in Development

Brain activity graphic

(Gordon Johnson, Pixabay)

4 Sept. 2020. An implantable mental health therapy system is being designed to synchronize signaling rhythms from various regions of the brain. The device, in research and development at University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, is funded by a five-year $6.6 million grant from National Institute of Mental Health, part of National Institutes of Health.

The project is lead by Alik Widge, professor of psychiatry and a biomedical engineer in the university’s medical school, and Mahsa Shoaran, a neuro-technologies professor at Ecole polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne, or EPFL, in Switzerland. The researchers propose an implanted system that stimulates specific regions of the brain with electronic impulses to better synchronize signaling rhythms from those regions, as a treatment for mental health disorders. When brain regions are not synchronized, say the researchers, information flows are disrupted, with evidence indicating mental health disorders can result.

Widge and Shoaran envision an integrated circuit device that can read signals from local field potentials — large groups of neurons in the brain, with signals generated from outside the brain cells — then send short bursts of electronic stimulation to correct imbalances in these signals. While deep brain stimulation is being used to treat disorders like epilepsy and Parkinson’s disease, those therapies require long periods of stimulation. In this case, says the team, the electronic impulses are expected to be much shorter and more targeted.

Widge describes the system working like a conductor leading an orchestra. “A conductor holds a baton,” says Widge in a university statement, “and as soon as he points, the violins come in at the exact right moment. If the conductor does it enough times, the violins learn on their own when to come in. This device works similarly.”

In the project, the researchers plan to develop a prototype device that combines Widge’s work on algorithms to control oscillating signals for local field potential synchronization with Shoaran’s research on signal processing circuits for neural measurement and decoding. The team then expects to test the system in lab rodents in Widge’s Translational Neuro-Engineering Lab.

If supported by initial results, the researchers will then test the device in larger animals. The team recruited the medical device company Cirtec Medical in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota to build an implantable device for this stage of the project. The company designs and develops implanted neuromodulation devices.

The researchers believe their device can be ready for human clinical trials by the end of their five-year project. In addition, they point to the proximity of their research to Minnesota’s “medical alley,” a cluster of university research labs, medical device companies, and technology enterprises in close proximity that can speed commercialization of the device.

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