A study by Harvard University have designed a probe that looks, acts and feels like a real neuron so that the brain does not identify it as a foreign object and try to attack it. This breakthrough “literally blurs the ever-present and clear dissimilarities in properties between man-made and living systems,” said Professor Charles M. Lieber, who led the research team. Results were published in the journal Nature Materials.
The probes can be directly implanted into brain tissue and survive as long as possible in the organ’s warm and humid environment. They contain sensors within a protective casing that can send data back to researchers.
Information from the devices about neuronal communication could identify possible treatments for neurological conditions and could also enhance general cognitive capabilities.
Current brain implants tend to trigger the brain’s foreign body response because they are too stiff and large compared to real neurons and neural tissue. This means that brain signals are difficult to capture in an effective way.
“The stereotype of the neural probe is that they are giant compared to the neuron targets that they’re interrogating,” said Xiao Yang, a researcher involved in the study. “But in our case, they are essentially the same.”
Once built, the team used a syringe to inject 16 of their cell imitators into the hippocampus region of the brain in mice. These subsequently unfold to create a porous web to imitate the brain’s crisscrossing neuron network.
"In an unexpected and exciting result," according to Yang, the new neuronal signals indicate that new born neurons may use the artificial neuron-like electronics as a scaffold to reach areas of the brain which have been damaged and help regenerate tissue.
Yang is now working to design even smaller and more flexible probes. He is also exploring the potential of neuron-like electronics to act as active scaffolding for regenerating neural tissue in vivo.