Today’s cutting edge neural implants can passively read brain activity, actively stimulate or modulate neuronal firing, or precisely deliver drugs to a particular area when they are needed. No one device can do all of these things simultaneously, but that may soon change due to recent research on ‘multifunctional fibers’ done by MIT’s Bioelectronics group.We’ve covered quite a few ‘revolutionary’ new interface technologies here at NG, so what new tricks do these fibers bring to the table?
- Flexible: these fiber based neural implants are much more flexible than the current industry standard, multielectrode arrays and hooked ‘needle’ style stimulators. The brain itself is composed of some of the softest tissue in the body, so harder implants that don’t bend with their surrounding biological environment can easily shift and move to a different area than they were implanted, causing scarring along the way.
- Biocompatible: This sort of goes without saying, but anything implanted with the body has to be entirely non-reactive, especially in the brain. Even a small inflammatory response could cause serious damage, so a polymer that is both flexible and biocompatible is perfect for neural implantation.
- Multiple functionalities: though the current process can only create threads that perform a single type of task, either electrical, optical, or chemical, they are so small that several fibers can be bundled together in a customized cable designed for the area it is designed to interface with.
The most exciting thing about these new fibers is undoubtedly the ability to bundle together different functionalities in the same implant, because it opens up a world of treatment and experimental options previously unavailable to scientists and (eventually) clinicians. It would be incredible, for example, to have an implant with electrodes paired with drug delivery pumps that could sense an oncoming epileptic seizure and administer medication to stop the runaway activity before it started.
Scientists at MIT’s Bioelectronics group not as interested in creating applications for these new multifunctional fibers as they are in perfecting the technology, but are encouraging other labs to use what they’ve created to build whatever kind of neural implants they can dream up. And people say we aren’t living in the future!