The National Institutes for Health has given East Lansing’s Michigan State University $1.8 million to improve brain implants, or electroceuticals, designed to treat Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, depression, and traumatic injuries.
These implants decipher chemical and electrical input and output that allow patients to again use their brains and bodies. The implants’ signaling ability fades over time, and the human body’s response to the implants is believed to be a contributing factor.
“It’s comparable to a cocktail party – except the people represent neurons – and microphones are positioned around the room,” says Erin Purcell, assistant professor of biomedical engineering and the head researcher for the project. “After a while, scar tissue reacts and blocks the reception. It’s like the microphone gets moved away from the speaker, and the speakers – the neurons – get quieter and talk differently, too.”
Purcell’s team is working to understand how changes in the neurons’ ability to communicate affects the implants’ success. It will focus on two mechanisms that may explain changes in neuronal function and loss of synaptic connections surrounding implants.
“Every patient’s reaction to the implants is different, and it’s unpredictable if the devices will last days, weeks, or months,” says Purcell. “If we understand the signaling mechanisms that dictate the response, then we can systematically test new ways to make the implant ‘unseen’ in the body and avoid the tissue response.”