Rice University engineers develop ultra-flexible nanoelectrodes for brain stimulation therapy

Engineers at Rice University have created groundbreaking nanoelectrodes that are set to enhance brain stimulation therapies.
Daniel Lehewych
The Brain
The Brain

"Normal Human Brain" by National Institutes of Health (NIH) is marked with Public Domain Mark 1.0.

Rice University engineers are breaking new ground in brain stimulation therapy by creating ultra-flexible and minimally invasive nanoelectrodes. As reported in Newswise, these innovative devices have the potential to revolutionize treatment for patients with impaired sensory or motor functions.

The recent research in Cell Reports shows how nanoelectrodes can establish lasting tissue-electrode interfaces with minimal scarring or deterioration in rodents. This is a significant leap over the capabilities of traditional intracortical electrodes.

"This research utilizes imaging, behavioral, and histological methods to show the enhanced effectiveness of stimulation achieved by these tissue-integrated electrodes," explained Lan Luan, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at Rice University and a corresponding author of the study.

The Future of Sensory Prosthetic Devices with Ultra-flexible Electrodes

The nanoelectrodes provide precise and minute electrical pulses, enabling controlled neural activity excitation. In addition, compared to traditional electrodes, they need a significantly reduced current for neuronal activation, achieving an order of magnitude improvement.

The comparison is evident when one looks at the current state of brain stimulation therapies. Traditional implantable electrodes, used for treating conditions such as Parkinson's disease, epilepsy, and obsessive-compulsive disorder, often cause adverse tissue reactions and unintended alterations in neural activity.

Chong Xie, a corresponding author of the study and an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, likened the effect of traditional electrodes to "blowing an airhorn in everyone's ear or having a loudspeaker blaring" in a room full of people. In contrast, the nanoelectrodes developed at Rice offer more precision and less disruption.

"Instead of a loudspeaker, now everyone has an earpiece," Xie said.

The advanced control over signal frequency, duration, and intensity could open the door to innovative sensory prosthetic devices. "When a larger current is employed, neuron activation becomes more widespread and diffuse," said Luan. "However, we successfully reduced the current and demonstrated a significantly more focused activation."

Luan and Xie are part of the Rice Neuroengineering Initiative, a collaborative effort to create an implantable visual prosthetic device for visually impaired patients. They envisage a future where these electrode arrays can be implanted to restore poor sensory function, with the level of precision in neuron activation crucial for generating accurate and precise sensations.

Starting from July 1, Luan will assume the position of associate professor. Under his leadership, the team has published a series of research papers demonstrating the electrode's capability to facilitate improved recording of brain activity over extended periods.

Roy Lycke, a postdoctoral associate in electrical and computer engineering, and Robin Kim, a graduate student, have led the study. Lycke and Kim have played vital roles in conducting the research, supported by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke and Rice internal funds.

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