Pulse 61: Neural Dust for Nervous System Stimulation

17 April 2018
Giulio Prisco

Neurons

UC Berkeley scientists have developed high-performance neural dust - implantable millimeter-sized devices operated as wirelessly powered nerve sensors - able to stimulate the nervous system (see below).

“StimDust is the smallest deep-tissue stimulator that we are aware of that’s capable of stimulating almost all of the major therapeutic targets in the peripheral nervous system,” said research leader Rikky Muller. “This device represents our vision of having tiny devices that can be implanted in minimally invasive ways to modulate or stimulate the peripheral nervous system, which has been shown to be efficacious in treating a number of diseases.”

“One of the big visions of my group is to create these very efficient bidirectional interfaces with the nervous system and couple that with intelligence to really understand the signals of disease and then to be able to treat disease in an intelligent, methodical way,” continued Muller. “There’s an incredible opportunity for healthcare applications that can really be transformative.”

This week’s lifestyle advice is: Stand up!

Scientists at UC Los Angeles have shown that too much sitting increases the risk of heart disease, diabetes and premature death. The researchers also found that sedentary behavior is linked to thinning in regions of the brain that are critical to memory formation. LA Times summarizes this last point as “If you want to take a good stroll down memory lane, new research suggests you'd better get out of that chair more often.”

New neural dust technology for wireless nerve stimulation. Engineers at UC Berkeley have improved upon previous “neural dust” sensors with a new device called StimDust, short for stimulating neural dust, which adds more sophisticated electronics to neural dust without sacrificing the technology’s tiny size or safety, greatly expanding the range of neural dust applications. StimDust, which has been presented at the IEEE Custom Integrated Circuits Conference in San Diego, is just 6.5 cubic millimeters in volume, about the size of a granule of sand, and is powered wirelessly by ultrasound, which the device then uses to power nerve stimulation at an efficiency of 82 percent.

Synthetic molecule vastly improves gene editing accuracy. University of Alberta researchers have found a way to improve the precision of CRISPR/Cas9-based gene editing by using a synthetic molecule called a bridged nucleic acid, or BNA. A study published in Nature Communications shows that using BNA to guide Cas9 can reduce gene editing errors by up to 10,000 times. According to the scientists, this is a game-changing achievement that promises to bring gene editing technology much closer to therapeutic reality.

Safely implanting immune cells in the brain. Scientists at the University of Virginia have discovered that doctors could load the brain with a custom blend of immune cells to battle genetic disorders, diseases such as Alzheimer's, and the effects of brain trauma. A research paper published in Journal of Experimental Medicine describes how the researchers implanted immune cells known as macrophages inside the brains of lab mice without the need for damaging radiation, an achievement that many scientists believed impossible.

Nanoparticles effective against lung cancer in lab mice. Researchers at Thomas Jefferson University have shown that a new treatment approach based on nanotechnology is effective against lung cancer in lab mice. A study published in Molecular Pharmaceutics describes nanoparticles designed to deliver a molecule called microRNA 29b (which has been shown to stall tumor growth and may make tumors more susceptible to chemotherapy) directly to cancer cells, without being degraded in the bloodstream or destroyed by immune cells.

Brain stimulation could restore feelings to paralyzed patients and users of prosthetic limbs. Using a tiny array of electrodes implanted in the brain, scientists at Caltech have induced sensations of touch and movement in the hand and arm of a paralyzed man. A study published in eLife describes how electrodes implanted in in the brain's somatosensory cortex were able to stimulate neurons that produced physical sensations, like a squeeze or tap, in the arm of a paralyzed man. According to the scientists, this technology could one day permit creating bidirectional Brain-Machine Interfaces (BMIs) that would enable a paralyzed person to feel again, while using prosthetic limbs.

Structure correctors repair Alzheimer’s disease in human brain cells, human trials next. Scientists at the Gladstone Institutes have discovered the cause of - and a potential solution for - the primary genetic risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease, a gene and a protein called apoE4. A research paper published in Nature Medicine describes how apoE4 "structure correctors" changed the structure of the harmful apoE4 protein in human brain cells, eliminated the signs of Alzheimer's disease, restored normal function to the cells, and improved cell survival. The scientists are now working at improving the structure correctors so they can be tested in human patients in the future.

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