As one can imagine, this isn’t fun at all. In fact, recently, scientists have called for improved safety guidelines and better research into how these electrodes destroy brain cells, as well as how they trigger the brains’ inflammatory immune system response.
Now, researchers from Carnegie Mellon University, funded by the Department of Defense’s research wing, DARPA, may have found a way around this. They’ve developed a flexible, squishy-silicon-based hydrogel that sticks to neural tissue, bringing non-invasive electrodes to the brain’s surface.
This hydrogel, which was tested on a cat’s dorsal root ganglion – a cluster of spinal nerve cells – can conform and adhere to cells. This lets the enclosed electrodes record brain activity without actually exposing the brain to the electrodes.
The researchers are hoping that their work will lead to a new era of safer neural implants, while also giving rise to better, more accurate neural readings that could help us better understand diseases and other brain conditions.
In a press release, Chris Bettinger, a Carnegie Mellon University engineer who worked on the hydrogel said: “Imagine you have a bowl of Jell-O, and you insert a rigid plastic fork into the bowl and move it around.” This is what it’s like when a conventional electrode is inserted into the brain.
While this is an over exaggeration, electrodes do cause a tiny amount of structural damage on their way down through the cortex. While scientists are still split on whether or not the adult human brain can grow new cells, it’s probably best to minimize the number of holes that you drill into it.
Furthermore, the brain knows that electrodes don’t belong there, so it calls on the immune system to fight them off. This leads to the eventual degradation of electrodes, meaning they give off inaccurate cell recordings and hamper neuroscientific research. Since the hydrogel can pass as brain-like, the body is much less likely to try to fight it off.
It’s far too early to say exactly how this new neural implant hydrogel will affect the realm of medical neuroscience, but if human trials work as well as the experiments on cats, then the brain-computer interfaces of the future could become much more seamless and a lot less harmful.