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Perfecting the biochip: Shape breakthrough paves way for neural implant boom

The use of electrode-based neural implants for medical purposes is a rapidly growing field, with research underway on applications as diverse as brain repair and drug measurement.

The precise design of such implants is still up for debate, with different shapes being used by different researchers around the world.

However the shape can have a significant impact on the quality of the connection between the implant and the cells, which can affect treatment success.

Until now, that is, because scientists from German research institution Forschungszentrum Jülich have determined exactly which shape is best to ensure the best connection. The scientists found that cells did a better job of incorporating the implants when they had a long, thin stalk topped off with a wide cap.

This information is a significant step for the fledgling field, as it will enable a standardised approach to neural implants and boost large-scale implant development.

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Understanding how cells coat foreign bodies and incorporate them was central to the research.

“In the development of nano-structured 3D surfaces for bio-electronic interfaces we use this behaviour to improve the connection between the cell membrane and the electronics,” explained Proffessor Andreas Offenhäusser, bioelectronics director of the Jülich Peter Grünberg institute.

Researchers worldwide favour different shaped nano-electrodes, so the team assessed the effectiveness of a variety of shapes using both theoretical and practical models.

Among the other shapes assessed was a mushroom cap-like electrode and a thin column without a central cap, however the long stalk/wide cap combination proved to be most effective in keeping the gap between the cells and the electrode to a minimum.

“For a variety of applications, it is important that the cell lies very close to the electrode. Already the distance of one ten thousandth of a millimeter is enough and you cannot measure anything more,” said Offenhäusser.

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Nano-electrode implants have the potential to be used for a huge range of different applications, both as treatments and to aid drug development.

Scientists could use the chips in conjunction with single cells in lab environments to determine the effectiveness or possible side-effects of drug candidates, and study the development of brain diseases more effectively.

When used as an implant, the electrodes could be used to aid a whole host of conditions, including as retinal implants to improve – and perhaps one day cure – the vision of the visually impaired.

Other uses include a host of applications for mental illnesses, with current research including treatments for depression, and for conditions such as brain damage and Parkinson’s.

In the future there are hopes that such neural implants could even replace organs or provide thought-control for the severely disabled.


Body images courtesy of Forschungszentrum Jülich.


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