New polymer fibers that are capable of transmitting multiple brain signals simultaneously, delivering drugs, and wirelessly recording brain functions have been developed by scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The new technology improves on many of the drawbacks encountered in traditional neural prosthetic devices. The fiber-fabrication technology was pioneered by Yoel Fink and re-adapted for neural indications by a team lead by Polina Anikeeva. The fibers are composed of a number of different channels, including optical waveguides to carry light, hollow tubes to carry drugs, and electrodes that can carry electrical signals. The completed fiber is approximately the width of a human hair, MIT News reports.
Sarah Felix, lead research engineer at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and member of ASME, said: “Among the engineering challenges associated with neural prosthetics is the biocompatibility of the implant. Research suggests that polymer is more compatible with the human body than the silicon in conventional neural probes used in neuroscience studies.” Anikeeva explained that because conventional methods have used harder and stiffer materials, ordinary movement could cause tearing and damage to surrounding neural tissue. In comparison, this new material will not trigger an immune response, break down, or release toxic chemicals into the body. Subsequently, the materials can remain in the body much longer. “We’re building neural interfaces that will interact with tissues in a more organic way than devices that have been used previously,” said Anikeeva in the most recent MIT News article. Furthermore, the multi-functional capabilities of the fiber could enable scientists to get a much clearer picture of brain functions and pharmaceutical efficacy than any single-function neural probe can provide.
John Rogers, a professor of materials science and engineering at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, was not connected with the research but took a look at the study’s findings. “These authors describe a fascinating, diverse collection of multi-functional fibers, tailored for insertion into the brain where they can stimulate and record neural behaviors through electrical, optical and fluidic means. The results significantly expand the toolkit of techniques that will be essential to our development of a basic understanding of brain function,” Rogers told MIT News this year.
Neural prosthetic research is a growing and promising field with innumerable applications including the study and treatment of many neurological disorders. ASME reports that the National Institute of Health spends $6.5 million on neural prosthetic research each year. Anikeeva and Fink’s co-authored study was published in Nature Biotechnology.