Injectable electronics could form basis for brain implants

An international team has recorded and monitored mouse brain cells with mesh electronics inserted via a syringe

If you've ever wondered whether wearable computers might one day turn into computers that are implanted in our brains, research at Harvard University suggests it's a possibility.

Flexible electronics can be injected directly into brain tissue, allowing for brain cells to be directly monitored and stimulated, according to the researchers from Harvard and China's National Center for Nanoscience and Technology.

The technology could open up new applications in medicine and brain-machine interfaces, which can read thoughts and act upon the external world, such as controlling a wheelchair by thought alone.

Harvard chemist Charles Lieber and collaborators worked with tiny, flexible mesh structures that are made of conductive polymer strands and embedded with transistors and electrodes. The mesh was rolled up, inserted in a syringe measuring 100 micrometers in diameter, and injected into the brain tissue of mice, where it unfurled.

Reporting in a study in the journal Nature Nanotechnology, the researchers said the mesh is mostly porous and can expand to fill biological cavities. It integrated with the brain tissue and the mice did not show significant signs of immune reaction to the material after five weeks.

Extremely thin electrical wires connected to the mesh were connected to external computers so that brain cells in the mice could be recorded and stimulated. But the researchers want to refine the design to make it wireless.

"In the future, our new approach and results could be extended in several directions, including the incorporation of multifunctional electronic devices and/or wireless interfaces to further increase the complexity of the injected electronics," they wrote.

The technology could potentially be developed to treat brain damage from stroke and Parkinson's disease, Lieber said in a Nature.com news article.

Researchers across many fields have been working on ways to link brain cells to computers, with engineers at Intel speculating that chips implanted in brains will be used to control computers by 2020.

Last month, researchers at the California Institute of Technology reported that they were able to implant electrodes in the brain of a quadriplegic man so that he could move a robotic arm in a fluid, smooth motion. He was able to shake hands and play rock, paper, scissors with the mechanical appendage.

Tim Hornyak covers Japan and emerging technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Tim on Twitter at @robotopia.

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Tim Hornyak

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