A three-year project in Europe seeks to develop nanodevices that could be used as brain implants to treat neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s disease and epilepsy.
The European Commission is funding the 3-million euro ($3.3-million) project, called Ion Neuromodulation for Epilepsy Treatment (IN-FET), which aims to create new implantable devices to fundamentally modulate the brain’s electrical activity.
Launched last month, the project, led by Scuola Internazionale Superiore di Studi Avanzati (SISSA), zeroes in on ions such as magnesium, potassium and calcium — nerve cell communication messengers.
“Today’s cutting-edge experimental therapies for restoring or repairing brain functions in neural disorders often involve modulating or silencing hyperactive brain circuits,” said Michele Giugliano, director of SISSA’s Neuronal Dynamics Lab, in a press release.
“This can be done by pharmacological or genetic manipulations, or by delivering electrical, magnetic or optical stimuli to the brain. All of them, however, come with serious drawbacks, due to the unnatural means to regulate the activity of nerve cells. Our idea is to use what the brain normally uses to function: ions.”
The plan is to develop implantable devices to alter the concentration of the most common ions on a cellular scale. The hope is that such devices will be able to measure neuronal electrical activity and, if necessary, correct it.
Led by Trieste, Italy-based SISSA, the project is undergirded by advancements in new-generation electronic batteries that use highly efficient electro-activated polymers. In this application — for patients with Parkinson’s or epilepsy — polymers would be used like “molecular machines” to trap or release certain ions into areas enveloping neurons.
“This way we could work on neurons activity by means of their own language, the one they normally use to communicate,” Giugliano said. “With this method, we could treat neurological diseases through a very natural means, which could be much more effective. Compared to the approaches currently used to study and treat neurological diseases, it is a change of perspective.”
By testing the devices on nerve cells in vitro (in a test tube or culture dish), the IN-FET project will attempt to learn whether the perspective is correct.
University of Sheffield and IBM Research scientists will develop the molecular devices, while the University of Geneva and the Inter-University Consortium For Nanoelectronics will build supportive theoretical models. Multi Channel Systems will handle integration and electronic interfacing.
“We are trying to open a truly new road towards a world waiting to be discovered,” Giugliano said. “We will work hard to achieve this, ready to be amazed.”
Nearly one million people are thought to have Parkinson’s in the United States.