Injecting electronics into the brain

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Invented by Harvard and Chinese scientists, the new method could treat a range of diseases from neurodegenerative disorders to paralysis. 

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In a first-of-its-kind attempt, U.S. and Chinese scientists have developed a new method to inject microelectronic devices such as wires and transistors directly into the brain (or other body parts), that could lead to sophisticated new ways to treat conditions ranging from neurodegenerative disorders to paralysis.

Researchers have developed stretchy, bendy electronics that are so thin that they can be rolled up and jammed into a small needle with a 0.1-millimeter diameter. These electronics are then injected into living tissue using syringes. The research involved injecting the electronics into the brains of live mice. Within an hour of being injected, the electronics unfurled and began monitoring biological activity.

Previous research revealed that electronics like these can be surgically implanted, but so far, it hasn’t been possible to precisely control their delivery to non-invasive target areas within the body.

The team led by Charles Lieber from Harvard and Ying Fang from the National Center for Nanoscience and Technology in Beijing have designed a method of fabricating mesh-shaped nanoscale electronic scaffolds consisting of a polymer–metal combination. Once rolled up and loaded into a syringe, the electrical components can be injected into cavities or specific regions of living tissues. The scaffolds can then be connected to devices and used to monitor neural activity, stimulate tissues, or even promote regeneration of neurons. This work was published in Nature Nanotechnology.

Once the needle is withdrawn, the electronics unfolds to about 80 percent of their original configuration without loss of function. Mesh electronics with widths more than 30 times that of the metal or glass needle have been known to be successfully injected.

 “Existing techniques are crude, relative to the way the brain is wired,” Lieber said. “Whether it’s a silicon probe or flexible polymers .. they cause inflammation in the tissue that requires periodically changing the position or the stimulation. “But with our injectable electronics, it’s as if it’s not there at all. They are one million times more flexible than any state-of-the-art flexible electronics and have sub-cellular feature sizes. They’re what I call ‘neuro-philic’ — they actually like to interact with neurons.”

“I do feel that this has the potential to be revolutionary,” said Lieber, a nanoscientist at Harvard and co-author of the study. “This opens up a completely new frontier where we can explore the interface between electronic structures and biology. For the past 30 years, people have made incremental improvements in micro-fabrication techniques that have allowed us to make rigid probes smaller and smaller, but no one has addressed this issue — the electronics/cellular interface — at the level at which biology works.”

Going forward, researchers hope to better understand how the body reacts to the injectable electronics over longer periods. Harvard’s Office of Technology Development has filed for a provisional patent on the technology and is actively seeking commercialization opportunities. “The idea of being able to precisely position and record from very specific areas, or even from specific neurons over an extended period of time — this could, I think, make a huge impact on neuroscience,” Lieber said.

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The original paper can be accessed here.

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