What would happen if scientists could manipulate brain cells just using a smartphone? You may not believe it but, in the future, it may be possible. Researchers from South Korea and the United States collaborated to developing a smartphone-controlled neural implant that can control neural circuits by delivering multiple drugs and color lights noninvasively.
This technology could pave the way for future studies on brain disease, such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, addiction, depression, and pain. The study was published in Nature Biomedical Engineering.
In vivo neuropharmacology and optogenetic stimulation can be exploited to decode neural circuitry to provide therapeutic strategies for brain disorders. However, current methods used by neuroscientists usually involve rigid metal tubes and optical fibers. According to the researchers, the new technology has obscured those methods, which are not suitable for long-term in vivo use because they are often bulky and lack multifunctionality. Moreover, they often cause lesions in the soft tissue of the brain due to their rigid structure.
“The wireless neural device enables chronic chemical and optical neuromodulation that has never been achieved before.” – Raza Qazilead, lead author and researcher with the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) and the University of Colorado Boulder.
Scientists can control the device with an elegant and simple user interface on a smartphone. This allows giving any specific combination or precise sequencing of light and drug deliveries without need to be inside the laboratory.
“This revolutionary device is the fruit of advanced electronics design and powerful micro and nanoscale engineering” – Jae Woong Jeong, professor of electrical engineering at KAIST.
To face the critical problem of exhaustion and evaporation of drugs and to ensure chronic wireless drug delivery, scientists equipped the device with Lego-like replaceable drug cartridges. In this way, neuroscientists can conduct their studies for several months without incurring the risk of running out of drugs. Researchers assembled cartridges into the brain implant with a soft and ultrathin probe.
According to Michael Bruchas, professor of anesthesiology and pain medicine and pharmacology at the University of Washington School of Medicine, this technology “allows us to better dissect the neural circuit basis of behavior, and how specific neuromodulators in the brain tune behavior in various ways”.
One of the goals is to use the technology for complex pharmacological studies, which can help to find new therapies for pain, addiction, and emotional distress. Researchers have successfully tested the brain implant in freely moving mice. Now, they are interested in further developing this technology in order to make it suitable for clinical applications.