A transparent sensor to enable brain study

Researchers have created a
transparent sensor that could help monitor brain activity without visually
blocking it. The sensor could also be used in lenses to detect injuries to the
retina or even glaucoma. A team of researchers from the University of
Wisconsin-Madison have developed an invisible implantable medical sensor that
could help us understand the human brain better. The team described its
technology, which has applications in fields ranging from neuroscience to
cardiac care and even contact lenses, in the journal Nature Communications.

Neural researchers study, monitor or
stimulate the brain using imaging techniques in conjunction with implantable
sensors that allow them to continuously capture and associate fleeting brain
signals with the brain activity they can see. However, it’s difficult to see
brain activity when there are sensors blocking the view. “One of the holy
grails of neural implant technology is that we’d really like to have an implant
device that doesn’t interfere with any of the traditional imaging diagnostics,”
says Justin Williams, a professor of biomedical engineering and neurological
surgery at UW-Madison. “A traditional implant looks like a square of dots, and
you can’t see anything under it. We wanted to make a transparent electronic
device.” They chose graphene, a material gaining wider use in everything from
solar cells to electronics, because of its versatility and biocompatibility.
And in fact, they can make their sensors incredibly flexible and transparent
because the electronic circuit elements are only 4 atoms thick – an astounding
thinness made possible by graphene’s excellent conductive properties.

“It’s got to be very thin and robust
to survive in the body,” says Zhenqiang (Jack) Ma, a professor of electrical
and computer engineering. “It is soft and flexible, and a good tradeoff between
transparency, strength and conductivity.” Drawing on his expertise in
developing revolutionary flexible electronics, the team designed and fabricated
the microelectrode arrays, which – unlike existing devices – work in tan dem
with a range of imaging technologies. “Other implantable microdevices might be
transparent at one wavelength, but not at others, or they lose their
properties,” says Ma. “Our devices are transparent across a large spectrum –
all the way from ultraviolet to deep infrared. We’ve even implanted them and
you cannot find them in an MR scan.” The transparent sensors could be a boon to
neuromodulation therapies, which physicians increasingly are using to control
symptoms, restore function, and relieve pain in patients with diseases or
disorders such as hypertension, epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease, or others.

Currently researchers are limited in
their ability to directly obse
rve how the body generates electrical signals, as
well as how it reacts to externally generated electrical signals. Clear
electrodes in combination with recent technological advances in optogenetics
and optical voltage probes will enable researchers to isolate those biological
mechanisms. This fundamental knowledge could be catalytic in dramatically
improving existing neuromodulation therapies and identifying new therapies.
While the team centered its efforts on neural research, they already have
started to explore other medical device applications. For example, working with
researchers at the University of Illinois-Chicago, they prototyped a contact
lens instrumented with dozens of invisible sensors to detect injury to the
retina; the UIC team is exploring applications such as early diagnosis of


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