Controlling neural networks through a smartphone

American and Korean researchers have invented a device that can be used to control neuronal networks. A tiny brain implant is controlled from a smartphone.

The technology allows faster detection of brain diseases

American and Korean researchers have invented a device that can be used to control neuronal networks. A tiny brain implant is controlled from a smartphone.

The scientists involved in the project believe that their newly developed device can contribute to the rapid and better detection of brain diseases such as Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, addiction, depression or pain. The invention can specifically treat special neurons with drugs and light over a longer period of time by using drug cartridges and strong Bluetooth Low Energy.

Raza Qazi, the lead author of the study, said: "Our invention enables long-term chemical and optical neuromodulation in a way that has never been achieved before.” He notes that the new technology far overshadows the traditional treatment methods of neuroscientists. These are not satisfactory permanent solutions, as the heavy devices limit patients' movements and their rigid structure leaves long-term lesions in soft brain tissue.

Although previous attempts have been made to mitigate negative tissue impact by incorporating soft probes and wireless platforms, their effectiveness has been severely limited due to the inability to deliver medication over time and their cumbersome, complex application.

Brain switching can be studied over months

In order to enable permanent wireless drug delivery, researchers had to find a solution to problems related to the drugs’ shelf life and absorption. The Korean and American scientists, therefore, worked together on the invention of a neuronal device with a replaceable drug cartridge. This should make it possible for neuroscientists to examine brain circuits for several months without worrying about the loss of drug effectiveness.

In order to test the exchangeable cartridges, they were integrated into a brain implant for mice using a soft probe with the thickness of a human hair. The probe included microfluidic channels and tiny LEDs to provide unlimited drug and light delivery.

Targeted triggering of specific combinations of light and drugs

The technology is controlled with the help of an easy-to-use device on the smartphone. The inventions are intended to make it easier for neuroscientists to trigger specific combinations of light and drug release.

Professor Jae-Woong Jeong commented: "This revolutionary device is the result of advanced electrical design and strong micro- and nanotechnology. We are very interested in developing this technique further to create a brain implant for clinical trials."

According to Professor Michael Bruchas, the device will help researchers in many ways: "It allows us to analyze behavior with respect to neuronal networks in more detail and to understand how certain neuromodulators in the brain affect behavior. We are also very excited to use the device for complex pharmacological studies, which could help in the development of new therapeutics for pain, addiction or emotional disorders".

Raza Qazi, Adrian M. Gomez, Daniel C. Castro, Zhanan Zou, Joo Yong Sim, Yanyu Xiong, Jonas Abdo, Choong Yeon Kim, Avery Anderson, Frederik Lohner, Sang-Hyuk Byun, Byung Chul Lee, Kyung-In Jang, Jianliang Xiao, Michael R. Bruchas, Jae-Woong Jeong. Wireless optofluidic brain probes for chronic neuropharmacology and photostimulation. Nature Biomedical Engineering, 2019; DOI: 10.1038/s41551-019-0432-1