It’s a notion that might be pulled from the pages of science-fiction novel — electronic devices that can be injected directly into the brain, or other body parts, and treat everything from neuro-degenerative disorders to paralysis. It sounds unlikely, until you visit Charles Lieber’s lab.
Long gone are the days of high-risk, invasive brain probing, when the brain was a mysterious arena we could barely touch without serious repercussions. While it’s still the most complicated organ, a research team from Harvard University has developed an electronic device that is so tiny and flexible it can be directly injected into the brain, where it can monitor brain activity and possibly even treated diseases like Parkinson’s or paralysis.
The researchers believe that this device is revolutionary, noting that it can do a lot inside the body without harming tissue or causing any complications — proven at least in mice, for now.
“We can precisely deliver these ultra-flexible electronics through a common syringe injection into virtually any kind of 3D soft material,” Charles Lieber, lead author of the study and a nanoscientist and nanotechnologist at Harvard University, told LiveScience. “The injection process and ultraflexible electronics introduce no damage to the targeted structures.”
Bright-field image showing the mesh electronics being injected through sub-100 micrometer inner diameter glass needle into aqueous solution.
Image credit: Lieber Research Group, Harvard University
To get it inside a mouse’s body, the researchers first create scaffolds as small flat sheets that consist of metal electrodes and silicone wires. Then, they attach sensors onto these meshes of metal and silicone that are about 90 percent empty space. These meshes roll up into a scroll when placed in liquid, then they can be injected through tiny syringes. Once inside the body, they revert back to their original, flat shape to do their thing.
Injecting these into the brains of mice during their experiments was promising, as it caused little to no bleeding and it recorded brain activity well. In addition, there’s no scar tissue or immune system response after the injection — even months afterwards. This is where this new device might revolutionize the brain probing scene, which has largely been plagued with such complications after implantations. Ultimately, if these meshes prove successful in the body for a long period of time, researchers could find ways to stimulate brain activity to treat Parkinson’s disease or other disorders.
At this stage not everyone is confident the new procedure can be applied safely to human beings, however. Jens Schouenborg, who is head of the Neuronano Research Centre at Lund University in Sweden, has said he wants to see more evidence of long-term compatibility with the body. Schouenborg is also working on his own gelatin-based ‘needle’ for delivering electrodes into the brain.