Neuroengineers at Brown University have developed an implantable, rechargeable, and wireless brain-computer interface that could help treat people with neuromotor diseases and other movement disorders, according to a study published in the Journal of Neural Engineering.
So far, the brain sensor has only been tested on animal models. However, the research team is hopeful that the device will be ready for clinical trials in the not-too-distant future.
“It’s paramount that any device we implant into a patient be absolutely safe and proven effective for the indicated use," said lead study author David Borton in an interview with Healthline. "We hope very much that a future generation of our device, a breakthrough in neurotechnology, can find its way to helping deliver therapy to a person with neuromotor disease.”
A Small Device with Huge Potential
The brain sensor device is shaped like a miniature sardine can, measuring about two inches long, 1.5 inches wide and 0.4 inches thick. According to press materials, inside is an entire “signal processing system: a lithium ion battery, ultralow-power integrated circuits designed at Brown for signal processing and conversion, wireless radio and infrared transmitters, and a copper coil for recharging.”
According to researchers, the sensor uses less than 100 milliwatts of power and can transmit data at 24 megabits per second to an external receiver.
"[The device] has features that are somewhat akin to a cell phone, except the conversation that is being sent out is the brain talking wirelessly," said co study-author Arto Nurmikko in a press release.
The Brown team's sensor has been continuously operating for more than 12 months in large animal models—a scientific first.
It has already made a significant impact in the science world as the “first to cross a threshold for usability in both basic research of the central nervous system and future clinical monitoring usage by being wireless and fully implantable,” Borton said.
The possibilities literally boggle the mind.
"The device will certainly first be used to help understand neuromotor disease and even normal cortical function, but now in mobile subjects," Borton said. “Colleagues in the BrainGate group have recently shown how neural signals can be used to control prosthetics, even robotic arms.
However, nimble and truly natural control of such prosthetics is far off, as we must still understand a great deal more about how the brain encodes and decodes information. I see our device more as making a leap in allowing us to explore more natural activity in the brain.”
Borton's team is beginning by using a version of the device to study the role of specific parts of the brain in an animal model of Parkinson's disease.
Engineering Challenges Ahead
Before any future applications are possible, Borton and his team must first overcome a few technical hurdles.
“One critical aspect we must address is the size of the device,” Borton said. “While we have shown that it's completely compatible with animal use, it is clear that for any wide spread clinical use of the device, we must reduce the form-factor. This is not impossible, but is one of our greatest current challenges.”
Another feature that needs improvement is the system’s battery life. While the device can last on one charge for about seven hours, the team knows this must improve and “have already made significant innovations on the more power-hungry components in the system,” he said.
They've already overcome the issues of water-proofing and biocompatibility (ensuring that the body doesn't reject the implant). The researchers are well on their way to talking directly with, and perhaps treating, the human brain.