MSUToday
Published: March 8, 2018

Engineering insights into brain implants

Contact(s): Caroline Brooks Communications and Brand Strategy office: 517-432-0920 caroline.brooks@cabs.msu.edu, Patricia Mroczek College of Engineering office: (517) 432-1303 mroczekp@egr.msu.edu

Patients suffering from brain diseases like Parkinson's and Alzheimer's have more treatment options than ever before, thanks to medical advances in the use of brain implants. In spite of these innovations, implants present a major drawback for patients: the scar tissue that forms around the implant severely limits function.

Research from MSU's College of Engineering uncovered insights that may provide valuable design improvements for future devices.

Erin Purcell, assistant professor of biomedical engineering, and Joseph Salatino, biomedical engineering doctoral student, uncovered information about the complexities of interactions between brain implants and the cells in which they interface. As it turns out, the supporting cells have a more important role in determining device function than previously thought.

"Today's new implantable devices can read-out and write-in electrical and chemical signals to and from the nervous system," Purcell said. "That has created unprecedented opportunities to understand brain function and treat neurological disease or injury, including Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases, depression, Tourette's Syndrome, deafness, blindness, stroke and tinnitus."

Their research, published in Nature Biomedical Engineering Journal, was selected among the journal's Top 10 articles of 2017 addressing outstanding health challenges.

"Following implantation, the brain mounts a foreign body response to the device and the subsequent 'scar' tissue surrounding a device can severely limit its long-term function," Purcell said.

These support cells, called glia, play a primary role in encapsulating the implants, she continued.

Purcell's research, "Glial responses to implanted electrodes in the brain," reframed the view of the support cells and suggested they should be considered "dynamic regulators" of neuron networks.

"As such, our research positions glia as an active determinant of the performance and therapeutic effects of devices implanted in the brain," Purcell said. "We expect these findings to inform new device designs that can improve treatment outcomes for patients suffering from a broad spectrum of neurological diseases."

Purcell's research team works in the MSU Regenerative Electrode Interface Laboratory and is collaborating with Kip Ludwig from the Mayo Clinic and TK Kozai from the University of Pittsburgh. Purcell's efforts are currently supported by two National Institutes of Health grants.

Purcell and Salatino uncovered information about brain implants and the cells surrounding them, which will improve designs for future devices.

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