Professor Matti Mintz, PhD
By stimulating certain areas of the brain, scientists can alleviate the effects of disorders such as Parkinson’s disease. But because controlling that stimulation may lack precision, over-stimulation is a serious concern—losing some of its therapeutic benefits for the patient over time.
Now a team of scientists from Tel Aviv University (TAU), Tel Aviv, Israel, part of a European consortium, is delving deep into human behavior, neurophysiology, and engineering to create a chip that can help physicians wire computer applications and sensors to the brain. The scientists say the chip will provide deep brain stimulation precisely where and when it’s needed.
Professor Matti Mintz, PhD, of the University’s Psychobiology Research Unit in its Department of Psychology, is focusing on the behavioral-physiological aspects of the research. He and the rest of the international research team are working toward a chip that could help treat some diseases of the mind in just a few years. Mintz says the platform is flexible enough to provide a basis for a variety of clinical experiments and tools, which can be programmed for specific disorders. For example, the chip could restore lost functions of the brain after a traumatic brain injury from a car accident or stroke.
The team’s methodology involves recording activity by using electrodes implanted in diseased areas of the brain. Based on an analysis of this activity, they develop algorithms to simulate healthy neuronal activity, which are programmed into a microchip and fed back into the brain.
For now, the chip, called the Rehabilitation Nano Chip (or ReNaChip), is hooked up to tiny electrodes that are implanted in the brain. But as chips become smaller, the ReNaChip could be made small enough to be "etched" right onto the electrodes themselves, according to the scientists.
For therapeutic purposes, though, only the electrodes would be inserted into the brain. "The chip itself can be implanted just under the skin, like pacemakers for the heart, ensuring that the brain is stimulated only when it needs to be," says a statement from Mintz, who is conducting experiments on animal models.
One of the challenges of the proposed technology is the size of the electrodes. The researchers hope to further miniaturize deep brain electrodes while adding more sensors at the same time, says Mintz. His colleague and partner is working on this problem.
The international multidisciplinary team, includes other researchers from the university, and partners from Austria, England, and Spain, regularly converge on the TAU campus to update and integrate new components of the set-up and monitor the progress of the chip in live animals in Mintz’s lab.
The researchers say that their ReNaChip could help people whose brains have deteriorated with age or been damaged by injury and disease. The chip will not only provide a bionic replacement for lost neuronal function in the brain, under ideal conditions, it could significantly rehabilitate the brain, they say.
Currently, the researchers are attempting to rehabilitate motor-learning functions lost due to brain damage. "We are attaching the chip to the brain to stimulate relatively simple brain behaviors," says Mintz. A controlled treatment for drug resistant epilepsy, based on the team’s technology, could be only a few years away, he adds.