Hooking our brains up to machines could indeed merge human and artificial intelligence, as envisioned by Elon Musk's Neuralink, and the like. But the more immediate benefits are likely to come in the form of new forms of treatment for brain diseases such as Parkinson's or Alzheimer's. Scientists have put forward another promising experimental device built for these kinds of tasks, which can be loaded up with different cartridges depending on the treatment needed and triggered remotely with a smartphone.
The device was developed by scientists at the KAIST research university in South Korea, together with colleagues at the University of Colorado. It promises similar functionality to a device we looked at back in 2015 from the Washington University in St Louis, which used incredibly thin microfluid channels and LED arrays to carry drugs and shine light on brain cells with high precision.
The notion of using light to treat certain conditions has gained some serious momentum of late. Known as optogenetics, the therapy stems from the ability to alter the behavior of certain brain cells due to proteins within them that are sensitive to light. It has shown promise as a way of treating blindness, pain and jet lag, to name a few examples.
In addition to minuscule LED lights, these ultra-fine probes, which are around the same thickness as a human hair, would also allow for the delivery of drugs to highly targeted areas through tiny channels. But one typical shortcoming of these devices is that the medication will inevitably run dry.
In conceiving this new device, the researchers sought to overcome this by designing a plug-and-play system that uses replaceable cartridges for a continuous supply. In this way, when a supply of drugs is exhausted a new cartridge can simply be loaded up to allow treatments to potentially last for months at a time.
All of that is a lot further down the track, with the scientists initially hoping to use the technology to manipulate neural circuitry in animals as a way of studying brain disorders. To that end, they tested out the device by implanting it into the brains of mice over a four-week period. This also allowed the team to test out the control method, consisting of a smartphone app and Bluetooth connection. This could even allow neuroscientists to dictate drug doses and combinations with light therapy from remote locations.
"This novel device is the fruit of advanced electronics design and powerful micro and nanoscale engineering," explained Professor Jae-Woong Jeong from KAIST's School of Electrical Engineering. "We are interested in further developing this technology to make a brain implant for clinical applications."
The research was published in the journal Nature Biomedical Engineering.
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