Authors: Adam Price-Evans
A new state of the art research program at Penn State (PA, USA) is aiming to amalgamate the fields of neuroscience and electrical engineering in order to revolutionize our approach to deciphering brain cell activity. The program will be led by Srinivas Tadigadapa and Steve Schiff (both Penn State University, PA, USA), recent winners of one of Penn State’s two exploratory BRAIN awards.
Combining the electrical engineering expertise of Tadigadapa with neurosurgeon Schiff’s background in physics and control engineering, the team aim to develop a technology capable of replacing invasive electrodes used to sense and stimulate brain cells.
Deep brain stimulation, currently utilized to treat Parkinson’s disease associated tremors, and being investigated for major depression amongst other conditions, involves the implantation of a pair of electrodes in the brain, which are then linked to a surgically implanted generator in the chest wall.
Deep brain stimulation allows specific portions of the brain to be electrically stimulated, however it is associated with some health risks due to the need to open up the skull to place electrodes on the surface or deeper into the brain. “If I put electrodes into the brain, which I have done a great deal in my career, there is a measurable risk of hemorrhage and damage, and there is always a few percent risk of infection,” Schiff commented.
Tadigadapa’s group focus on the development of microelectromechanical systems that miniaturize device arrays for sensing and actuating. The ultimate goal is to enable recording and stimulation of the brain with noninvasive, non-contact techniques. More specifically, the team aim to stimulate single neurons with a magnetic field, utilizing tiny coils that deliver a localized electrical current to the individual brain cell.
The multidisciplinary team also includes John Wikswo of Vanderbilt University (TN, USA), who is one of the world’s leading experts on magnetic fields in neurons.
The Earth’s huge magnetic field is currently providing a major stumbling block for the detection of magnetic fields in the brain. Tadigadapa’s team plans to overcome this technical issue with an on-chip circuit capable of generating a magnetic field that can compensate for the Earth’s magnetic field. “We have a number of designs that Srinivas is going to be placing on these chips. Unlike in the past, these things can be implanted in the body,” explained Schiff. “And when implanted, they will allow us to take this technology out of the laboratory for the use of people in an ambulatory setting,”
It is hoped that this technology will benefit the huge number of individuals suffering from very common disorders, such as depression and epilepsy, and could even help to address the communication needs of those with spinal cord injuries, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or strokes. Testing will be carried out initially on rat brain slices in vitro to evaluate signal strengths required and will then be scaled up. “I think we are looking at a 5 year time horizon to the point where we could seriously have the technology ready for application and potential translation testing,” Schiff concluded.