Designing Brain Implants to Detect More and Last Longer

GE is one of several companies hoping to develop better neural implants for people with brain diseases and paralyzed limbs.

Scientists are making strides in decoding the language of the brain, but the tools used to communicate with it remain crude.

Inside the biomedical electronics lab at GE Global Research in Niskayuna, New York, Jeff Ashe, a principal engineer, holds up a mechanical pencil and points to its thin graphite point. That, he says, is the size of the new wireless brain implants GE is developing. The hope is that smaller, more biocompatible implants will help the paralyzed walk and provide a more effective way to treat diseases that affect the brain.

Neuroscientists have implanted such devices in the brains of several paralyzed patients (see “The Thought Experiment”). But today’s implants are not practical solutions. They capture only a crude picture of activity inside the brain, and they invariably begin to fail after a year or two, in large part because brain tissue begins encapsulating them in scar tissue. The software that interprets signals from the implants has gotten much better in recent years, but the implants themselves have changed little.

Some of the implants under development at GE should be about the same size as the neurons they’re measuring. According to Andrew Schwartz, a professor of neurobiology at the University of Pittsburgh, there is good evidence that making them so small will minimize the scarring. The implants are also being designed to have 10 times as many electrodes, so they will be able to record from thousands of neurons instead of just a couple of hundred. They should be wireless, too, eliminating the hardwired electrical connections that often fail and can cause infection.

GE is testing a variety of approaches for growing very thin electrodes on top of microchips, using its expertise in fabricating microelectromechanical devices (MEMs). The company thinks its experience with wireless medical devices and electronics could also help. Materials for coating the devices, which could help them last longer in the brain, are being tested now.

Existing implants, about the size of a thumbtack, have allowed a dozen or so patients to control a cursor or a robot arm just by thinking about it. This week researchers at Ohio State University reported that an implant that detects electrical activity in neurons, paired with a device that conveys electrical signals to a paralyzed arm, allowed a patient to move his hand by the power of thought.

GE is collaborating with John Donoghue, a neuroscientist at Brown University who is pioneering the use of implants as aids to paralyzed patients. The medical-device maker Medtronic and a few startups are working on better implants as well.

Become an MIT Technology Review Insider for in-depth analysis and unparalleled perspective.
Subscribe today

Uh oh–you've read all five of your free articles for this month.

Insider Premium

$179.95/yr US PRICE

More from undefined

Want more award-winning journalism? Subscribe and become an Insider.

  • Insider Premium {! insider.prices.premium !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Our award winning magazine, unlimited access to our story archive, special discounts to MIT Technology Review Events, and exclusive content.

    See details+

    What's Included

    Bimonthly home delivery and unlimited 24/7 access to MIT Technology Review’s website.

    The Download. Our daily newsletter of what's important in technology and innovation.

    Access to the Magazine archive. Over 24,000 articles going back to 1899 at your fingertips.

    Special Discounts to select partner offerings

    Discount to MIT Technology Review events

    Ad-free web experience

    First Look. Exclusive early access to stories.

    Insider Conversations. Join in and ask questions as our editors talk to innovators from around the world.

  • Insider Plus {! insider.prices.plus !}* Best Value

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Everything included in Insider Basic, plus ad-free web experience, select discounts to partner offerings and MIT Technology Review events

    See details+

    What's Included

    Bimonthly home delivery and unlimited 24/7 access to MIT Technology Review’s website.

    The Download. Our daily newsletter of what's important in technology and innovation.

    Access to the Magazine archive. Over 24,000 articles going back to 1899 at your fingertips.

    Special Discounts to select partner offerings

    Discount to MIT Technology Review events

    Ad-free web experience

  • Insider Basic {! insider.prices.basic !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Six issues of our award winning magazine and daily delivery of The Download, our newsletter of what’s important in technology and innovation.

    See details+

    What's Included

    Bimonthly home delivery and unlimited 24/7 access to MIT Technology Review’s website.

    The Download. Our daily newsletter of what's important in technology and innovation.

You've read of free articles this month.