Tag Archives: epilepsy

Graphene-based neural probes

I have two news bits (dated almost one month apart) about the use of graphene in neural probes, one from the European Union and the other from Korea.

European Union (EU)

This work is being announced by the European Commission’s (a subset of the EU) Graphene Flagship (one of two mega-funding projects announced in 2013; 1B Euros each over ten years for the Graphene Flagship and the Human Brain Project).

According to a March 27, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily, researchers have developed a graphene-based neural probe that has been tested on rats,

Measuring brain activity with precision is essential to developing further understanding of diseases such as epilepsy and disorders that affect brain function and motor control. Neural probes with high spatial resolution are needed for both recording and stimulating specific functional areas of the brain. Now, researchers from the Graphene Flagship have developed a new device for recording brain activity in high resolution while maintaining excellent signal to noise ratio (SNR). Based on graphene field-effect transistors, the flexible devices open up new possibilities for the development of functional implants and interfaces.

The research, published in 2D Materials, was a collaborative effort involving Flagship partners Technical University of Munich (TU Munich; Germany), Institut d’Investigacions Biomèdiques August Pi i Sunyer (IDIBAPS; Spain), Spanish National Research Council (CSIC; Spain), The Biomedical Research Networking Center in Bioengineering, Biomaterials and Nanomedicine (CIBER-BBN; Spain) and the Catalan Institute of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology (ICN2; Spain).

Caption: Graphene transistors integrated in a flexible neural probe enables electrical signals from neurons to be measured with high accuracy and density. Inset: The tip of the probe contains 16 flexible graphene transistors. Credit: ICN2

A March 27, 2017 Graphene Flagship press release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, describes the work,  in more detail,

The devices were used to record the large signals generated by pre-epileptic activity in rats, as well as the smaller levels of brain activity during sleep and in response to visual light stimulation. These types of activities lead to much smaller electrical signals, and are at the level of typical brain activity. Neural activity is detected through the highly localised electric fields generated when neurons fire, so densely packed, ultra-small measuring devices is important for accurate brain readings.

The neural probes are placed directly on the surface of the brain, so safety is of paramount importance for the development of graphene-based neural implant devices. Importantly, the researchers determined that the graphene-based probes are non-toxic, and did not induce any significant inflammation.

Devices implanted in the brain as neural prosthesis for therapeutic brain stimulation technologies and interfaces for sensory and motor devices, such as artificial limbs, are an important goal for improving quality of life for patients. This work represents a first step towards the use of graphene in research as well as clinical neural devices, showing that graphene-based technologies can deliver the high resolution and high SNR needed for these applications.

First author Benno Blaschke (TU Munich) said “Graphene is one of the few materials that allows recording in a transistor configuration and simultaneously complies with all other requirements for neural probes such as flexibility, biocompability and chemical stability. Although graphene is ideally suited for flexible electronics, it was a great challenge to transfer our fabrication process from rigid substrates to flexible ones. The next step is to optimize the wafer-scale fabrication process and improve device flexibility and stability.”

Jose Antonio Garrido (ICN2), led the research. He said “Mechanical compliance is an important requirement for safe neural probes and interfaces. Currently, the focus is on ultra-soft materials that can adapt conformally to the brain surface. Graphene neural interfaces have shown already great potential, but we have to improve on the yield and homogeneity of the device production in order to advance towards a real technology. Once we have demonstrated the proof of concept in animal studies, the next goal will be to work towards the first human clinical trial with graphene devices during intraoperative mapping of the brain. This means addressing all regulatory issues associated to medical devices such as safety, biocompatibility, etc.”

Caption: The graphene-based neural probes were used to detect rats’ responses to visual stimulation, as well as neural signals during sleep. Both types of signals are small, and typically difficult to measure. Credit: ICN2

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Mapping brain activity with flexible graphene micro-transistors by Benno M Blaschke, Núria Tort-Colet, Anton Guimerà-Brunet, Julia Weinert, Lionel Rousseau, Axel Heimann, Simon Drieschner, Oliver Kempski, Rosa Villa, Maria V Sanchez-Vives. 2D Materials, Volume 4, Number 2 DOI https://doi.org/10.1088/2053-1583/aa5eff Published 24 February 2017

© 2017 IOP Publishing Ltd

This paper is behind a paywall.


While this research from Korea was published more recently, the probe itself has not been subjected to in vivo (animal testing). From an April 19, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily,

Electrodes placed in the brain record neural activity, and can help treat neural diseases like Parkinson’s and epilepsy. Interest is also growing in developing better brain-machine interfaces, in which electrodes can help control prosthetic limbs. Progress in these fields is hindered by limitations in electrodes, which are relatively stiff and can damage soft brain tissue.

Designing smaller, gentler electrodes that still pick up brain signals is a challenge because brain signals are so weak. Typically, the smaller the electrode, the harder it is to detect a signal. However, a team from the Daegu Gyeongbuk Institute of Science & Technology [DGIST} in Korea developed new probes that are small, flexible and read brain signals clearly.

This is a pretty interesting way to illustrate the research,

Caption: Graphene and gold make a better brain probe. Credit: DGIST

An April 19, 2017 DGIST press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, expands on the theme (Note: A link has been removed),

The probe consists of an electrode, which records the brain signal. The signal travels down an interconnection line to a connector, which transfers the signal to machines measuring and analysing the signals.

The electrode starts with a thin gold base. Attached to the base are tiny zinc oxide nanowires, which are coated in a thin layer of gold, and then a layer of conducting polymer called PEDOT. These combined materials increase the probe’s effective surface area, conducting properties, and strength of the electrode, while still maintaining flexibility and compatibility with soft tissue.

Packing several long, thin nanowires together onto one probe enables the scientists to make a smaller electrode that retains the same effective surface area of a larger, flat electrode. This means the electrode can shrink, but not reduce signal detection. The interconnection line is made of a mix of graphene and gold. Graphene is flexible and gold is an excellent conductor. The researchers tested the probe and found it read rat brain signals very clearly, much better than a standard flat, gold electrode.

“Our graphene and nanowires-based flexible electrode array can be useful for monitoring and recording the functions of the nervous system, or to deliver electrical signals to the brain,” the researchers conclude in their paper recently published in the journal ACS Applied Materials and Interfaces.

The probe requires further clinical tests before widespread commercialization. The researchers are also interested in developing a wireless version to make it more convenient for a variety of applications.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Enhancement of Interface Characteristics of Neural Probe Based on Graphene, ZnO Nanowires, and Conducting Polymer PEDOT by Mingyu Ryu, Jae Hoon Yang, Yumi Ahn, Minkyung Sim, Kyung Hwa Lee, Kyungsoo Kim, Taeju Lee, Seung-Jun Yoo, So Yeun Kim, Cheil Moon, Minkyu Je, Ji-Woong Choi, Youngu Lee, and Jae Eun Jang. ACS Appl. Mater. Interfaces, 2017, 9 (12), pp 10577–10586 DOI: 10.1021/acsami.7b02975 Publication Date (Web): March 7, 2017

Copyright © 2017 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

A bionic hybrid neurochip from the University of Calgary (Canada)

The University of Calgary is publishing some very exciting work these days as can be seen in my Sept. 21, 2016 posting about quantum teleportation. Today, the university announced this via an Oct. 26, 2016 news item on Nanowerk (Note: A link has been removed),

Brain functions are controlled by millions of brain cells. However, in order to understand how the brain controls functions, such as simple reflexes or learning and memory, we must be able to record the activity of large networks and groups of neurons. Conventional methods have allowed scientists to record the activity of neurons for minutes, but a new technology, developed by University of Calgary researchers, known as a bionic hybrid neuro chip, is able to record activity in animal brain cells for weeks at a much higher resolution. The technological advancement was published in the journal Scientific Reports(“A novel bio-mimicking, planar nano-edge microelectrode enables enhanced long-term neural recording”).

There’s more from an Oct. 26, 2016 University of Calgary news release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item,

“These chips are 15 times more sensitive than conventional neuro chips,” says Naweed Syed, PhD, scientific director of the University of Calgary, Cumming School of Medicine’s Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute, member of the Hotchkiss Brain Institute and senior author on the study. “This allows brain cell signals to be amplified more easily and to see real time recordings of brain cell activity at a resolution that has never been achieved before.”

The development of this technology will allow researchers to investigate and understand in greater depth, in animal models, the origins of neurological diseases and conditions such as epilepsy, as well as other cognitive functions such as learning and memory.

“Recording this activity over a long period of time allows you to see changes that occur over time, in the activity itself,” says Pierre Wijdenes, a PhD student in the Biomedical Engineering Graduate Program and the study’s first author. “This helps to understand why certain neurons form connections with each other and why others won’t.”

The cross-faculty team created the chip to mimic the natural biological contact between brain cells, essentially tricking the brain cells into believing that they are connecting with other brain cells. As a result, the cells immediately connect with the chip, thereby allowing researchers to view and record the two-way communication that would go on between two normal functioning brain cells.

“We simulated what mother-nature does in nature and provided brain cells with an environment where they feel as if they are at home,” says Syed. “This has allowed us to increase the sensitivity of our readings and help neurons build a long-term relationship with our electronic chip.”

While the chip is currently used to analyze animal brain cells, this increased resolution and the ability to make long-term recordings is bringing the technology one step closer to being effective in the recording of human brain cell activity.

“Human brain cell signals are smaller and therefore require more sensitive electronic tools to be designed to pick up the signals,” says Colin Dalton, Adjunct Professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the Schulich School of Engineering and a co-author on this study. Dalton is also the Facility Manager of the University of Calgary’s Advanced Micro/nanosystems Integration Facility (AMIF), where the chips were designed and fabricated.

Researchers hope the technology will one day be used as a tool to bring personalized therapeutic options to patients facing neurological disease.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

A novel bio-mimicking, planar nano-edge microelectrode enables enhanced long-term neural recording by Pierre Wijdenes, Hasan Ali, Ryden Armstrong, Wali Zaidi, Colin Dalton & Naweed I. Syed. Scientific Reports 6, Article number: 34553 (2016) doi:10.1038/srep34553
Published online: 12 October 2016

This paper is  open access.

Calming a synapse (part of a neuron) with graphene flakes

As we continue to colonize our own brains, there’s more news of graphene and neurons (see my Feb. 1, 2016 post featuring research from the same team in Italy featured in this post). A May 10, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily highlights work that could be used for epilepsy,

Innovative graphene technology to buffer the activity of synapses– this is the idea behind a recently-published study in the journal ACS Nano coordinated by the International School for Advanced Studies in Trieste (SISSA) and the University of Trieste. In particular, the study showed how effective graphene oxide flakes are at interfering with excitatory synapses, an effect that could prove useful in new treatments for diseases like epilepsy.

I guess the press release took a while to make its way through translation, here’s more from the April 10, 2016 SISSA (International School for Advanced Studies) press release (also on EurekAlert),

The laboratory of SISSA’s Laura Ballerini in collaboration with the University of Trieste, the University of Manchester and the University of Castilla -la Mancha, has discovered a new approach to modulating synapses. This methodology could be useful for treating diseases in which electrical nerve activity is altered. Ballerini and Maurizio Prato (University of Trieste) are the principal investigators of the project within the European flagship on graphene, a far-reaching 10-year international collaboration (one billion euros in funding) that studies innovative uses of the material.

Traditional treatments for neurological diseases generally include drugs that act on the brain or neurosurgery. Today however, graphene technology is showing promise for these types of applications, and is receiving increased attention from the scientific community. The method studied by Ballerini and colleagues uses “graphene nano-ribbons” (flakes) which buffer activity of synapses simply by being present.

“We administered aqueous solutions of graphene flakes to cultured neurons in ‘chronic’ exposure conditions, repeating the operation every day for a week. Analyzing functional neuronal electrical activity, we then traced the effect on synapses” says Rossana Rauti, SISSA researcher and first author of the study.

In the experiments, size of the flakes varied (10 microns or 80 nanometers) as well as the type of graphene: in one condition graphene was used, in another, graphene oxide. “The ‘buffering’ effect on synaptic activity happens only with smaller flakes of graphene oxide and not in other conditions,” says Ballerini. “The effect, in the system we tested, is selective for the excitatory synapses, while it is absent in inhibitory ones”

A Matter of Size

What is the origin of this selectivity? “We know that in principle graphene does not interact chemically with synapses in a significant way- its effect is likely due to the mere presence of synapses,” explains SISSA researcher and one of the study’s authors, Denis Scaini. “We do not yet have direct evidence, but our hypothesis is that there is a link with the sub-cellular organization of the synaptic space.”

A synapse is a contact point between one neuron and another where the nervous electrical signal “jumps” between a pre and post-synaptic unit. [emphasis mine] There is a small gap or discontinuity where the electrical signal is “translated” by a neurotransmitter and released by pre-synaptic termination into the extracellular space and reabsorbed by the postsynaptic space, to be translated again into an electrical signal. The access to this space varies depending on the type of synapses: “For the excitatory synapses, the structure’s organization allows higher exposure for the graphene flakes interaction, unlike inhibitory synapses, which are less physically accessible in this experimental model,” says Scaini.

Another clue that distance and size could be crucial in the process is found in the observation that graphene performs its function only in the oxidized form. “Normal graphene looks like a stretched and stiff sheet while graphene oxide appears crumpled, and thus possibly favoring interface with the synaptic space, ” adds Rauti.

Administering graphene flake solutions leaves the neurons alive and intact. For this reason the team thinks they could be used in biomedical applications for treating certain diseases. “We may imagine to target a drug by exploiting the apparent flakes’ selectivity for synapses, thus targeting directly the basic functional unit of neurons”concludes Ballerini.

That’s a nice description of neurons, synapses, and neurotransmitters.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Graphene Oxide Nanosheets Reshape Synaptic Function in Cultured Brain Networks by Rossana Rauti, Neus Lozano, Veronica León, Denis Scaini†, Mattia Musto, Ilaria Rago, Francesco P. Ulloa Severino, Alessandra Fabbro, Loredana Casalis, Ester Vázquez, Kostas Kostarelos, Maurizio Prato, and Laura Ballerini. ACS Nano, 2016, 10 (4), pp 4459–4471
DOI: 10.1021/acsnano.6b00130 Publication Date (Web): March 31, 2016

Copyright © 2016 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

With over 150 partners from over 20 countries, the European Union’s Graphene Flagship research initiative unveils its work package devoted to biomedical technologies

An April 11, 2016 news item on Nanowerk announces the Graphene Flagship’s latest work package,

With a budget of €1 billion, the Graphene Flagship represents a new form of joint, coordinated research on an unprecedented scale, forming Europe’s biggest ever research initiative. It was launched in 2013 to bring together academic and industrial researchers to take graphene from the realm of academic laboratories into European society in the timeframe of 10 years. The initiative currently involves over 150 partners from more than 20 European countries. The Graphene Flagship, coordinated by Chalmers University of Technology (Sweden), is implemented around 15 scientific Work Packages on specific science and technology topics, such as fundamental science, materials, health and environment, energy, sensors, flexible electronics and spintronics.

Today [April 11, 2016], the Graphene Flagship announced in Barcelona the creation of a new Work Package devoted to Biomedical Technologies, one emerging application area for graphene and other 2D materials. This initiative is led by Professor Kostas Kostarelos, from the University of Manchester (United Kingdom), and ICREA Professor Jose Antonio Garrido, from the Catalan Institute of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology (ICN2, Spain). The Kick-off event, held in the Casa Convalescència of the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB), is co-organised by ICN2 (ICREA Prof Jose Antonio Garrido), Centro Nacional de Microelectrónica (CNM-IMB-CSIC, CIBER-BBN; CSIC Tenured Scientist Dr Rosa Villa), and Institut d’Investigacions Biomèdiques August Pi i Sunyer (IDIBAPS; ICREA Prof Mavi Sánchez-Vives).

An April 11, 2016 ICN2 press release, which originated the news item, provides more detail about the Biomedical Technologies work package and other work packages,

The new Work Package will focus on the development of implants based on graphene and 2D-materials that have therapeutic functionalities for specific clinical outcomes, in disciplines such as neurology, ophthalmology and surgery. It will include research in three main areas: Materials Engineering; Implant Technology & Engineering; and Functionality and Therapeutic Efficacy. The objective is to explore novel implants with therapeutic capacity that will be further developed in the next phases of the Graphene Flagship.

The Materials Engineering area will be devoted to the production, characterisation, chemical modification and optimisation of graphene materials that will be adopted for the design of implants and therapeutic element technologies. Its results will be applied by the Implant Technology and Engineering area on the design of implant technologies. Several teams will work in parallel on retinal, cortical, and deep brain implants, as well as devices to be applied in the periphery nerve system. Finally, The Functionality and Therapeutic Efficacy area activities will centre on development of devices that, in addition to interfacing the nerve system for recording and stimulation of electrical activity, also have therapeutic functionality.

Stimulation therapies will focus on the adoption of graphene materials in implants with stimulation capabilities in Parkinson’s, blindness and epilepsy disease models. On the other hand, biological therapies will focus on the development of graphene materials as transport devices of biological molecules (nucleic acids, protein fragments, peptides) for modulation of neurophysiological processes. Both approaches involve a transversal innovation environment that brings together the efforts of different Work Packages within the Graphene Flagship.

A leading role for Barcelona in Graphene and 2D-Materials

The kick-off meeting of the new Graphene Flagship Work Package takes place in Barcelona because of the strong involvement of local institutions and the high international profile of Catalonia in 2D-materials and biomedical research. Institutions such as the Catalan Institute of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology (ICN2) develop frontier research in a supportive environment which attracts talented researchers from abroad, such as ICREA Research Prof Jose Antonio Garrido, Group Leader of the ICN2 Advanced Electronic Materials and Devices Group and now also Deputy Leader of the Biomedical Technologies Work Package. Until summer 2015 he was leading a research group at the Technische Universität München (Germany).

Further Graphene Flagship events in Barcelona are planned; in May 2016 ICN2 will also host a meeting of the Spintronics Work Package. ICREA Prof Stephan Roche, Group Leader of the ICN2 Theoretical and Computational Nanoscience Group, is the deputy leader of this Work Package led by Prof Bart van Wees, from the University of Groningen (The Netherlands). Another Work Package, on optoelectronics, is led by Prof Frank Koppens from the Institute of Photonic Sciences (ICFO, Spain), with Prof Andrea Ferrari from the University of Cambridge (United Kingdom) as deputy. Thus a number of prominent research institutes in Barcelona are deeply involved in the coordination of this European research initiative.

Kostas Kostarelos, the leader of the Biomedical Technologies Graphene Flagship work package, has been mentioned here before in the context of his blog posts for The Guardian science blog network (see my Aug. 7, 2014 post for a link to his post on metaphors used in medicine).

Electronic organic micropump for direct drug delivery to the brain

I can understand the appeal but have some questions about this micropump in the brain concept. First, here’s more about the research from an April 16, 2015 news item on Nanowerk,

Many potentially efficient drugs have been created to treat neurological disorders, but they cannot be used in practice. Typically, for a condition such as epilepsy, it is essential to act at exactly the right time and place in the brain. For this reason, the team of researchers led by Christophe Bernard at Inserm Unit 1106, “Institute of Systems Neuroscience” (INS), with the help of scientists at the École des Mines de Saint-Étienne and Linköping University (Sweden) have developed an organic electronic micropump which, when combined with an anticonvulsant drug, enables localised inhibition of epileptic seizure in brain tissue in vitro.

An April 16, 2015 INSERM (Institut national de la santé et de la recherche médicale) press release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, goes on to describe the problem the researchers are attempting to solve and their solution to it,

Drugs constitute the most widely used approach for treating brain disorders. However, many promising drugs failed during clinical testing for several reasons:

  • they are diluted in potentially toxic solutions,
  • they may themselves be toxic when they reach organs to which they were not initially directed,
  • the blood-brain barrier, which separates the brain from the blood circulation, prevents most drugs from reaching their targets in the brain,
  • drugs that succeed in penetrating the brain will act in a non-specific manner, i.e. on healthy regions of the brain, altering their functions.

Epilepsy is a typical example of a condition for which many drugs could not be commercialised because of their harmful effects, when they might have been effective for treating patients resistant to conventional treatments [1].

During an epileptic seizure, the nerve cells in a specific area of the brain are suddenly activated in an excessive manner. How can this phenomenon be controlled without affecting healthy brain regions? To answer this question, Christophe Bernard’s team, in collaboration with a team led by George Malliaras at the Georges Charpak-Provence Campus of the École des Mines of Saint-Étienne and Swedish scientists led by Magnus Berggren from Linköping University, have developed a biocompatible micropump that makes it possible to deliver therapeutic substances directly to the relevant areas of the brain.

The micropump (20 times thinner than a hair) is composed of a membrane known as “cation exchange,” i.e., it has negative ions attached to its surface. It thus attracts small positively charged molecules, whether these are ions or drugs. When an electrical current is applied to it, the flow of electrons generated projects the molecules of interest toward the target area.

To enable validation of this new technique, the researchers reproduced the hyperexcitability of epileptic neurons in mouse brains in vitro. They then injected GABA, a compound naturally produced in the brain and that inhibits neurons, into this hyperactive region using the micropump. The scientists then observed that the compound not only stopped this abnormal activity in the target region, but, most importantly, did not interfere with the functioning of the neighbouring regions.

This technology may thus resolve all the above-mentioned problems, by allowing very localised action, directly in the brain and without peripheral toxicity.

“By combining electrodes, such as those used to treat Parkinson’s disease, with this micropump, it may be possible to use this technology to treat patients with epilepsy who are resistant to conventional treatments, and those for whom the side-effects are too great,” explains Christophe Bernard, Inserm Research Director.

Based on these initial results, the researchers are now working to move on to an in vivo animal model and the possibility of combining this high-technology system with the microchip they previously developed in 2013. The device could be embedded and autonomous. The chip would be used to detect the imminent occurrence of a seizure, in order to activate the pump to inject the drug at just the right moment. It may therefore be possible to control brain activity where and when it is needed.

In addition to epilepsy, this state-of-the-art technology, combined with existing drugs, offers new opportunities for many brain diseases that remain difficult to treat at this time.


[1] Epilepsy in brief

This disease, which affects nearly 50 million people in the world, is the most common neurological disorder after migraine.

The neuronal dysfunctions associated with epilepsy lead to attacks with variable symptoms, from loss of consciousness to disorders of movement, sensation or mood.

Despite advances in medicine, 30% of those affected are resistant to all treatments.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Controlling Epileptiform Activity with Organic Electronic Ion Pumps by Adam Williamson, Jonathan Rivnay, Loïg Kergoat, Amanda Jonsson, Sahika Inal, Ilke Uguz, Marc Ferro, Anton Ivanov, Theresia Arbring-Sjöström, Daniel T. Simon, Magnus Berggren, George G. Malliaras, and Christophe Bernardi. Advanced Materials First published: 11 April 2015Full publication history DOI: 10.1002/adma.201500482

This paper is behind a paywall.

Finally, my questions. How does the pump get refilled once the drugs are used up? Do you get a warning when the drug supply is almost nil? How does that warning work? Does implanting the pump require brain surgery or is there a less intrusive fashion of placing this pump exactly where you want it to be? Once it’s been implanted, how do you find a pump  20 times thinner than a human hair?

For some reason this micropump brought back memories of working in high tech environments where developers would come up with all kinds of nifty ideas but put absolutely no thought into how these ideas might actually work once human human beings got their hands on the product. In any event, the micropump seems exciting and I hope researchers work out the kinks, implementationwise, before they’re implanted.