Better, Softer and Safer Brain Implants
Brain implants are typically used to monitor brain activity and stimulate neural regions to ease symptoms of epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease, and severe depression. The implants are made from metal and other rigid materials that can cause inflammation and buildup of scar tissue over time. Now MIT engineers are developing soft, flexible neural implants that can gently conform to the brain’s contours and monitor activity over longer periods, without aggravating surrounding tissue. By way of 3D printing, neural probes and other electronic devices are as soft and flexible as rubber.
Made from a type of polymer or soft plastic the devices are also electrically conductive. The normally liquid-like conducting polymer solution is converted into a substance more like viscous toothpaste – which could be fed through a conventional 3D printer to make stable, electrically conductive patterns.
The engineers planted the device, including a small, rubbery electrode, in the brain of a mouse. The neural probe was able to pick up activity from a single neuron as the mouse moved within a controlled setting. The result is promising in the sense that this can give scientists a higher-resolution picture of the brain’s activity and can help in personalizing therapies and use long-term brain implants for a variety of neurological disorders.
Through 3D printing, different neural devices can be made very quickly. The design can be changed, the printing code run, and a new design can be generated in 30 minutes. It is hoped that this will streamline the development of neural interfaces, fully made of soft materials.
Conducting polymers have a unique combination of plastic-like flexibility and metal-like electrical conductivity. They are used commercially as antistatic coatings, as they can effectively carry away any electrostatic charges that build up on electronics and other static-prone surfaces. The engineers believed that if they could 3D print a conducting polymer, they could then use the material to print different soft, intricately patterned electronic devices, such as flexible circuits and single-neuron electrodes.
The team of engineers published the results of their study in the journal Nature Communications. This only shows that 3D printing may enable speedy, on-demand design of softer, safer neural devices that can greatly help study brain activity as well as help with certain neurological conditions.
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