KAIST
Daejeon, Republic of Korea

Researchers have developed a smartphone-controlled soft brain implant that can be recharged wirelessly from outside the body. It enables long-term neural circuit manipulation without the need for periodic disruptive surgeries to replace the battery of the implant. Scientists believe this technology can help uncover and treat psychiatric disorders and neurodegenerative diseases such as addiction, depression, and Parkinson’s.

Engineered by KAIST researchers and collaborators, the tiny brain implant is constructed of ultra-soft and biocompliant polymers to help provide long-term compatibility with tissue. Geared with micron-sized LEDs (equivalent to the size of a grain of salt) mounted on ultra-thin probes (the thickness of a human hair), it can wirelessly manipulate target neurons in the deep brain using light.

The study, led by Prof. Jae-Woong Jeong, is a step forward from the wireless head-mounted implant neural device he developed in 2019. That previous version could indefinitely deliver multiple drugs and light stimulation treatment wirelessly by using a smartphone.1

For the new upgraded version, the research team came up with a fully implantable, soft optoelectronic system that can be remotely and selectively controlled by a smartphone. This research was published in Nature Communications.2

The new wireless charging technology addresses the limitations of current brain implants. Wireless implantable device technologies have recently become popular as alternatives to conventional tethered implants, because they help minimize stress and inflammation in freely moving animals during brain studies, which in turn enhance the lifetime of the devices. However, such devices require either intermittent surgeries to replace discharged batteries, or special and bulky wireless power setups, which limit experimental options as well as the scalability of animal experiments.

“This powerful device eliminates the need for additional painful surgeries to replace an exhausted battery in the implant, allowing seamless chronic neuromodulation,” says Prof. Jeong. “We believe that the same basic technology can be applied to various types of implants, including deep brain stimulators and cardiac and gastric pacemakers, to reduce the burden on patients for long-term use within the body.”

To enable wireless battery charging and controls, researchers developed a tiny circuit that integrates a wireless energy harvester with a coil antenna and a Bluetooth low-energy chip. An alternating magnetic field can harmlessly penetrate through tissue and generate electricity inside the device to charge the battery. Then the battery-powered Bluetooth implant delivers programmable patterns of light to brain cells using an easy-to-use smartphone app for realtime brain control.

“This device can be operated anywhere and anytime to manipulate neural circuits, which makes it a highly versatile tool for investigating brain functions,” says lead author Choong Yeon Kim, a researcher at KAIST.

Neuroscientists successfully tested these implants in rats and demonstrated their ability to suppress cocaine-induced behavior after the rats were injected with cocaine. This was achieved by precise light stimulation of relevant target neurons in their brains using the smartphone-controlled LEDs. Furthermore, the battery in the implants could be repeatedly recharged while the rats were behaving freely, thus minimizing any physical interruption to the experiments.

“Wireless battery recharging makes experimental procedures much less complicated,” says co-lead author Min Jeong Ku, a researcher at Yonsei University’s College of Medicine.

“The fact that we can control a specific behavior of animals, by delivering light stimulation into the brain just with a simple manipulation of smartphone app, watching freely moving animals nearby, is very interesting and stimulates a lot of imagination,” says Jeong-Hoon Kim, a professor of physiology at Yonsei University’s College of Medicine. “This technology will facilitate various avenues of brain research.”

The researchers believe this brain implant technology may lead to new opportunities for brain research and therapeutic intervention to treat diseases in the brain and other organs.

This work was supported by grants from the National Research Foundation of Korea and the KAIST Global Singularity Research Program.

References

  1. Manipulating Brain Cells by Smartphone,” KAIST, Aug 7, 2019.
  2. C. Yeon Kim, et al., “Soft subdermal implant capable of wireless battery charging and programmable controls for applications in optogenetics,” Nature Communications, 12:535 (2021), Jan. 22, 2021.

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This article first appeared in the March, 2021 issue of Medical Design Briefs Magazine.

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