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Brain 'pacemaker': Smarter Parkinson's care?

Scientists are working on a biomimetic chip called ReNaChip that could advance current treatments by making deep brain stimulation more precise.

Diagram of Deep Brain Stimulation
An example of a current DBS system. ReNaChip makers hope their chip will one day be small enough to be "etched" right onto the electrodes that provide brain stimulation. Southwest Neurological Associates

The idea of an electronic device implanted in the brain tends to evoke spooky scenarios a la "Total Recall." But if a team of international scientists has its way, brain implants will one day be viewed as a viable and commonplace therapy for conditions like Parkinson's disease, depression, and even age-related loss of brain elasticity.

The scientists are working on a biomimetic chip called the Rehabilitation Nano Chip (ReNaChip) that could be used to wire computer applications and sensors to the brain, building off of current procedures to make those approaches more precise.

The chip itself wouldn't be implanted in the brain; instead, it would be hooked up to tiny electrodes that provide precisely controlled stimulation to diseased areas.

An existing procedure called deep brain stimulation (DBS) is already used to treat neurological symptoms, most commonly Parkinson's effects such as tremor, rigidity, stiffness, slowed movement, and walking problems.

It involves a surgically implanted, battery-operated medical device called a neurostimulator that delivers electrical stimulation to targeted areas in the brain that control movement, blocking the abnormal nerve signals that cause Parkinson's symptoms.

However, the ReNaChip team says over-stimulation of the brain is a serious concern in current procedures, as it can cause patients to lose some therapeutic benefits over time. That's where their work comes in.

"The weak point of DBS methodology is that the stimulation is applied continuously, with no smart controller to decide when the stimulation is needed and when it should be paused," Matti Mintz, a professor in Tel Aviv University's Psychobiology Research Unit and one of the scientists working on the ReNaChip project, told CNET.

The ReNaChip system would work to alleviate this problem by recording the activity of the brain, analyzing this activity by algorithmic means embedded in the chip, and initiating the DBS only when needed.

Professor Matti Mintz
Professor Matti Mintz Tel Aviv University

The system could, for example, deactivate the DBS while Parkinson's patients are napping or activate the DBS in epileptic patients only before an emerging seizure or when some motor action is needed.

Another potential benefit could be flexibility, Mintz says. The platform is flexible enough to create tools that can be programmed to target brain functions lost to a traumatic brain injury from a car accident or stroke. The ReNaChip team plans to finalize its experiments within six months and hopes the chip could start treating some neurological conditions in just a few years.

Other partners in the project include Newcastle University in the U.K.; Lund University in Sweden; Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona; WizSoft, a data-mining software maker based in Israel and the United States; Guger Technologies, a medical engineering company in Austria; and others.