Tag Archives: neural interfaces

Neurons and graphene carpets

I don’t entirely grasp the carpet analogy. Actually, I have no why they used a carpet analogy but here’s the June 12, 2018 ScienceDaily news item about the research,

A work led by SISSA [Scuola Internazionale Superiore di Studi Avanzati] and published on Nature Nanotechnology reports for the first time experimentally the phenomenon of ion ‘trapping’ by graphene carpets and its effect on the communication between neurons. The researchers have observed an increase in the activity of nerve cells grown on a single layer of graphene. Combining theoretical and experimental approaches they have shown that the phenomenon is due to the ability of the material to ‘trap’ several ions present in the surrounding environment on its surface, modulating its composition. Graphene is the thinnest bi-dimensional material available today, characterised by incredible properties of conductivity, flexibility and transparency. Although there are great expectations for its applications in the biomedical field, only very few works have analysed its interactions with neuronal tissue.

A June 12, 2018 SISSA press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more detail,

A study conducted by SISSA – Scuola Internazionale Superiore di Studi Avanzati, in association with the University of Antwerp (Belgium), the University of Trieste and the Institute of Science and Technology of Barcelona (Spain), has analysed the behaviour of neurons grown on a single layer of graphene, observing a strengthening in their activity. Through theoretical and experimental approaches the researchers have shown that such behaviour is due to reduced ion mobility, in particular of potassium, to the neuron-graphene interface. This phenomenon is commonly called ‘ion trapping’, already known at theoretical level, but observed experimentally for the first time only now. “It is as if graphene behaves as an ultra-thin magnet on whose surface some of the potassium ions present in the extra cellular solution between the cells and the graphene remain trapped. It is this small variation that determines the increase in neuronal excitability” comments Denis Scaini, researcher at SISSA who has led the research alongside Laura Ballerini.

The study has also shown that this strengthening occurs when the graphene itself is supported by an insulator, like glass, or suspended in solution, while it disappears when lying on a conductor. “Graphene is a highly conductive material which could potentially be used to coat any surface. Understanding how its behaviour varies according to the substratum on which it is laid is essential for its future applications, above all in the neurological field” continues Scaini, “considering the unique properties of graphene it is natural to think for example about the development of innovative electrodes of cerebral stimulation or visual devices”.

It is a study with a double outcome. Laura Ballerini comments as follows: “This ‘ion trap’ effect was described only in theory. Studying the impact of the ‘technology of materials’ on biological systems, we have documented a mechanism to regulate membrane excitability, but at the same time we have also experimentally described a property of the material through the biology of neurons.”

Dexter Johnson in a June 13, 2018 posting, on his Nanoclast blog (on the IEEE [Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers] website), provides more context for the work (Note: Links have been removed),

While graphene has been tapped to deliver on everything from electronics to optoelectronics, it’s a bit harder to picture how it may offer a key tool for addressing neurological damage and disorders. But that’s exactly what researchers have been looking at lately because of the wonder material’s conductivity and transparency.

In the most recent development, a team from Europe has offered a deeper understanding of how graphene can be combined with neurological tissue and, in so doing, may have not only given us an additional tool for neurological medicine, but also provided a tool for gaining insights into other biological processes.

“The results demonstrate that, depending on how the interface with [single-layer graphene] is engineered, the material may tune neuronal activities by altering the ion mobility, in particular potassium, at the cell/substrate interface,” said Laura Ballerini, a researcher in neurons and nanomaterials at SISSA.

Ballerini provided some context for this most recent development by explaining that graphene-based nanomaterials have come to represent potential tools in neurology and neurosurgery.

“These materials are increasingly engineered as components of a variety of applications such as biosensors, interfaces, or drug-delivery platforms,” said Ballerini. “In particular, in neural electrode or interfaces, a precise requirement is the stable device/neuronal electrical coupling, which requires governing the interactions between the electrode surface and the cell membrane.”

This neuro-electrode hybrid is at the core of numerous studies, she explained, and graphene, thanks to its electrical properties, transparency, and flexibility represents an ideal material candidate.

In all of this work, the real challenge has been to investigate the ability of a single atomic layer to tune neuronal excitability and to demonstrate unequivocally that graphene selectively modifies membrane-associated neuronal functions.

I encourage you to read Dexter’s posting as it clarifies the work described in the SISSA press release for those of us (me) who may fail to grasp the implications.

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

Single-layer graphene modulates neuronal communication and augments membrane ion currents by Niccolò Paolo Pampaloni, Martin Lottner, Michele Giugliano, Alessia Matruglio, Francesco D’Amico, Maurizio Prato, Josè Antonio Garrido, Laura Ballerini, & Denis Scaini. Nature Nanotechnology (2018) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41565-018-0163-6 Published online June 13, 2018

This paper is behind a paywall.

All this brings to mind a prediction made about the Graphene Flagship and the Human Brain Project shortly after the European Commission announced in January 2013 that each project had won funding of 1B Euros to be paid out over a period of 10 years. The prediction was that scientists would work on graphene/human brain research.

Carbon nanotubes to repair nerve fibres (cyborg brains?)

Can cyborg brains be far behind now that researchers are looking at ways to repair nerve fibers with carbon nanotubes (CNTs)? A June 26, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily describes the scheme using carbon nanotubes as a material for repairing nerve fibers,

Carbon nanotubes exhibit interesting characteristics rendering them particularly suited to the construction of special hybrid devices — consisting of biological issue and synthetic material — planned to re-establish connections between nerve cells, for instance at spinal level, lost on account of lesions or trauma. This is the result of a piece of research published on the scientific journal Nanomedicine: Nanotechnology, Biology, and Medicine conducted by a multi-disciplinary team comprising SISSA (International School for Advanced Studies), the University of Trieste, ELETTRA Sincrotrone and two Spanish institutions, Basque Foundation for Science and CIC BiomaGUNE. More specifically, researchers have investigated the possible effects on neurons of the interaction with carbon nanotubes. Scientists have proven that these nanomaterials may regulate the formation of synapses, specialized structures through which the nerve cells communicate, and modulate biological mechanisms, such as the growth of neurons, as part of a self-regulating process. This result, which shows the extent to which the integration between nerve cells and these synthetic structures is stable and efficient, highlights the great potentialities of carbon nanotubes as innovative materials capable of facilitating neuronal regeneration or in order to create a kind of artificial bridge between groups of neurons whose connection has been interrupted. In vivo testing has actually already begun.

The researchers have included a gorgeous image to illustrate their work,

Caption: Scientists have proven that these nanomaterials may regulate the formation of synapses, specialized structures through which the nerve cells communicate, and modulate biological mechanisms, such as the growth of neurons, as part of a self-regulating process. Credit: Pixabay

A June 26, 2017 SISSA press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, describes the work in more detail while explaining future research needs,

“Interface systems, or, more in general, neuronal prostheses, that enable an effective re-establishment of these connections are under active investigation” explain Laura Ballerini (SISSA) and Maurizio Prato (UniTS-CIC BiomaGUNE), coordinating the research project. “The perfect material to build these neural interfaces does not exist, yet the carbon nanotubes we are working on have already proved to have great potentialities. After all, nanomaterials currently represent our best hope for developing innovative strategies in the treatment of spinal cord injuries”. These nanomaterials are used both as scaffolds, a supportive framework for nerve cells, and as means of interfaces releasing those signals that empower nerve cells to communicate with each other.

Many aspects, however, still need to be addressed. Among them, the impact on neuronal physiology of the integration of these nanometric structures with the cell membrane. “Studying the interaction between these two elements is crucial, as it might also lead to some undesired effects, which we ought to exclude”. Laura Ballerini explains: “If, for example, the mere contact provoked a vertiginous rise in the number of synapses, these materials would be essentially unusable”. “This”, Maurizio Prato adds, “is precisely what we have investigated in this study where we used pure carbon nanotubes”.

The results of the research are extremely encouraging: “First of all we have proved that nanotubes do not interfere with the composition of lipids, of cholesterol in particular, which make up the cellular membrane in neurons. Membrane lipids play a very important role in the transmission of signals through the synapses. Nanotubes do not seem to influence this process, which is very important”.

There is more, however. The research has also highlighted the fact that the nerve cells growing on the substratum of nanotubes, thanks to this interaction, develop and reach maturity very quickly, eventually reaching a condition of biological homeostasis. “Nanotubes facilitate the full growth of neurons and the formation of new synapses. This growth, however, is not indiscriminate and unlimited since, as we proved, after a few weeks a physiological balance is attained. Having established the fact that this interaction is stable and efficient is an aspect of fundamental importance”. Maurizio Prato and Laura Ballerini conclude as follows: “We are proving that carbon nanotubes perform excellently in terms of duration, adaptability and mechanical compatibility with the tissue. Now we know that their interaction with the biological material, too, is efficient. Based on this evidence, we are already studying the in vivo application, and preliminary results appear to be quite promising also in terms of recovery of the lost neurological functions”.

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

Sculpting neurotransmission during synaptic development by 2D nanostructured interfaces by Niccolò Paolo Pampaloni, Denis Scaini, Fabio Perissinotto, Susanna Bosi, Maurizio Prato, Laura Ballerini. Nanomedicine: Nanotechnology, Biology and Medicine, DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.nano.2017.01.020 Published online: May 25, 2017

This paper is open access.