Monday, October 11, 2010

New Technology Can Rewire a Damaged Brain

 
  • Researchers at two Midwestern universities are working to create an electronic device that is capable of rewiring the human brain. Such technology could dramatically improve the prognoses for people suffering from brain damage.
  • Researchers at two Midwestern universities are working to create an electronic device that is capable of rewiring the human brain. Such technology could dramatically improve the prognoses for people suffering from brain damage.A few weeks ago, Smarter Technology wrote about a virtual reality technology being used to treat post-traumatic stress syndrome in Iraqi War veterans. Veterans, who often suffer from physical in addition to psychological trauma, have inspired another technology that could help millions who have brain damage. A team of researchers is creating an electronic device that can rewire brain connectivity and help restore normal behavior and movement.
    The human brain can become damaged during a wide number of traumatic events. Brain injury can lead to a slew of symptoms, such as loss of coordination, balance, memory and mobility. Emotional side effects can include mood swings, anxiety, depression and aggression.
    An injured brain can cause side effects like loss of memory, paralysis and depression (source: NIH). 
    Even with improvements in helmets and armor, soldiers at war are at a high risk of contracting brain injuries. Coupled with the symptoms of post-traumatic-stress syndrome, brain injuries can be particularly devastating for veterans.
    During development, the brain naturally builds and solidifies communication pathways between neurons. Traumatic injury can cause these pathways to become damaged or destroyed. In the month following an injury, the brain redevelops, with certain parts of the brain undergoing widespread, but not always perfect, rewiring.

    Pedram Mohseni, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at Case Western Reserve University, and Randolph J. Nudo, a professor of molecular and integrative physiology at Kansas University Medical Center, are working to improve the redevelopment of the brain after injury. The team hopes that, in the weeks after trauma, repeated communications between distant neurons might help restore brain connectivity.

    "The month following injury is a window of opportunity," Mohseni says. "We believe we can do this with an injured brain, which is very malleable."
    The scientists have built a multichannel microelectronic device that can bypass the gaps left in the brain after injury. Currently called a "brain-machine-brain interface," the device has a microchip on a circuit board smaller than a quarter. The microchip is able to amplify brain signals produced by neurons. Using an algorithm, it can separate these signals from noise and other background disturbances. After identifying a signal, the microchip transmits it to a neuron somewhere else in the brain—thereby artificially connecting two neural regions.
    Connected to microelectrodes implanted in the brain, the device currently must be used outside the body. Eventually, however, the whole microchip system could be implanted. In a rat model, the tool has been successful in restoring brain connectivity. The researchers are now developing a prototype for human testing.
    The study, which began in 2007, received a $1.44 million grant in September from the Department of Defense Congressionally Directed Medical Research Program. The scientists say the device could be available for patient use within the next 10 years.

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