Tag Archives: University of Trieste

Graphene and neurons in a UK-Italy-Spain collaboration

There’s been a lot of talk about using graphene-based implants in the brain due to the material’s flexibility along with its other properties. A step forward has been taking according to a Jan. 29, 2016 news item on phys.org,

Researchers have successfully demonstrated how it is possible to interface graphene – a two-dimensional form of carbon – with neurons, or nerve cells, while maintaining the integrity of these vital cells. The work may be used to build graphene-based electrodes that can safely be implanted in the brain, offering promise for the restoration of sensory functions for amputee or paralysed patients, or for individuals with motor disorders such as epilepsy or Parkinson’s disease.

A Jan. 29, 2016 Cambridge University press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more detail,

Previously, other groups had shown that it is possible to use treated graphene to interact with neurons. However the signal to noise ratio from this interface was very low. By developing methods of working with untreated graphene, the researchers retained the material’s electrical conductivity, making it a significantly better electrode.

“For the first time we interfaced graphene to neurons directly,” said Professor Laura Ballerini of the University of Trieste in Italy. “We then tested the ability of neurons to generate electrical signals known to represent brain activities, and found that the neurons retained their neuronal signalling properties unaltered. This is the first functional study of neuronal synaptic activity using uncoated graphene based materials.”

Our understanding of the brain has increased to such a degree that by interfacing directly between the brain and the outside world we can now harness and control some of its functions. For instance, by measuring the brain’s electrical impulses, sensory functions can be recovered. This can be used to control robotic arms for amputee patients or any number of basic processes for paralysed patients – from speech to movement of objects in the world around them. Alternatively, by interfering with these electrical impulses, motor disorders (such as epilepsy or Parkinson’s) can start to be controlled.

Scientists have made this possible by developing electrodes that can be placed deep within the brain. These electrodes connect directly to neurons and transmit their electrical signals away from the body, allowing their meaning to be decoded.

However, the interface between neurons and electrodes has often been problematic: not only do the electrodes need to be highly sensitive to electrical impulses, but they need to be stable in the body without altering the tissue they measure.

Too often the modern electrodes used for this interface (based on tungsten or silicon) suffer from partial or complete loss of signal over time. This is often caused by the formation of scar tissue from the electrode insertion, which prevents the electrode from moving with the natural movements of the brain due to its rigid nature.

Graphene has been shown to be a promising material to solve these problems, because of its excellent conductivity, flexibility, biocompatibility and stability within the body.

Based on experiments conducted in rat brain cell cultures, the researchers found that untreated graphene electrodes interfaced well with neurons. By studying the neurons with electron microscopy and immunofluorescence the researchers found that they remained healthy, transmitting normal electric impulses and, importantly, none of the adverse reactions which lead to the damaging scar tissue were seen.

According to the researchers, this is the first step towards using pristine graphene-based materials as an electrode for a neuro-interface. In future, the researchers will investigate how different forms of graphene, from multiple layers to monolayers, are able to affect neurons, and whether tuning the material properties of graphene might alter the synapses and neuronal excitability in new and unique ways. “Hopefully this will pave the way for better deep brain implants to both harness and control the brain, with higher sensitivity and fewer unwanted side effects,” said Ballerini.

“We are currently involved in frontline research in graphene technology towards biomedical applications,” said Professor Maurizio Prato from the University of Trieste. “In this scenario, the development and translation in neurology of graphene-based high-performance biodevices requires the exploration of the interactions between graphene nano- and micro-sheets with the sophisticated signalling machinery of nerve cells. Our work is only a first step in that direction.”

“These initial results show how we are just at the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the potential of graphene and related materials in bio-applications and medicine,” said Professor Andrea Ferrari, Director of the Cambridge Graphene Centre. “The expertise developed at the Cambridge Graphene Centre allows us to produce large quantities of pristine material in solution, and this study proves the compatibility of our process with neuro-interfaces.”

The research was funded by the Graphene Flagship [emphasis mine],  a European initiative which promotes a collaborative approach to research with an aim of helping to translate graphene out of the academic laboratory, through local industry and into society.

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

Graphene-Based Interfaces Do Not Alter Target Nerve Cells by Alessandra Fabbro, Denis Scaini, Verónica León, Ester Vázquez, Giada Cellot, Giulia Privitera, Lucia Lombardi, Felice Torrisi, Flavia Tomarchio, Francesco Bonaccorso, Susanna Bosi, Andrea C. Ferrari, Laura Ballerini, and Maurizio Prato. ACS Nano, 2016, 10 (1), pp 615–623 DOI: 10.1021/acsnano.5b05647 Publication Date (Web): December 23, 2015

Copyright © 2015 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

There are a couple things I found a bit odd about this project. First, all of the funding is from the Graphene Flagship initiative. I was expecting to see at least some funding from the European Union’s other mega-sized science initiative, the Human Brain Project. Second, there was no mention of Spain nor were there any quotes from the Spanish researchers. For the record, the Spanish institutions represented were: University of Castilla-La Mancha, Carbon Nanobiotechnology Laboratory, and the Basque Foundation for Science.

The yin and the yang of carbon nanotubes and toxicity

 

Illustration courtesy of the University College of London (UCL). Downloaded from http://www.ucl.ac.uk/news/news-articles/0113/130115-chemistry-resolves-toxic-concerns-about-carbon-nanotubes

Illustration courtesy of the University College of London (UCL). Downloaded from http://www.ucl.ac.uk/news/news-articles/0113/130115-chemistry-resolves-toxic-concerns-about-carbon-nanotubes

Researchers at the University College of London (UCL), France’s Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS), and Italy’s University of Trieste have determined that carbon nanotube toxicity issues can be addressed be reducing their length and treating them chemically. From the Jan. 15,2013 news item on ScienceDaily,

In a new study, published January 15 [2013] in the journal Angewandte Chemie, evidence is provided that the asbestos-like reactivity and pathogenicity reported for long, pristine nanotubes can be completely alleviated if their surface is modified and their effective length is reduced as a result of chemical treatment.

First atomically described in the 1990s, carbon nanotubes are sheets of carbon atoms rolled up into hollow tubes just a few nanometres in diameter. Engineered carbon nanotubes can be chemically modified, with the addition of chemotherapeutic drugs, fluorescent tags or nucleic acids — opening up applications in cancer and gene therapy.

Furthermore, these chemically modified carbon nanotubes can pierce the cell membrane, acting as a kind of ‘nano-needle’, allowing the possibility of efficient transport of therapeutic and diagnostic agents directly into the cytoplasm of cells.

Among their downsides however, have been concerns about their safety profile. One of the most serious concerns, highlighted in 2008, involves the carcinogenic risk from the exposure and persistence of such fibres in the body. Some studies indicate that when long untreated carbon nanotubes are injected to the abdominal cavity of mice they can induce unwanted responses resembling those associated with exposure to certain asbestos fibres.

In this paper, the authors describe two different reactions which ask if any chemical modification can render the nanotubes non-toxic. They conclude that not all chemical treatments alleviate the toxicity risks associated with the material. Only those reactions that are able to render carbon nanotubes short and stably suspended in biological fluids without aggregation are able to result in safe, risk-free material.

Here’s a citation and link for this latest  research, from the ScienceDaily news item where you can also read the lead researcher’s comments about carbon nanotubes, safety, and unreasonable proposals to halt production,

Hanene Ali-Boucetta, Antonio Nunes, Raquel Sainz, M. Antonia Herrero, Bowen Tian, Maurizio Prato, Alberto Bianco, Kostas Kostarelos. Asbestos-like Pathogenicity of Long Carbon Nanotubes Alleviated by Chemical Functionalization. Angewandte Chemie International Edition, 2013; DOI: 10.1002/anie.201207664

The article is behind a paywall. I have mentioned long carbon nanotubes and their resemblance to asbestos fibres in several posts. The  Oct. 26, 2009 posting [scroll down about 1/3 of the way] highlights research which took place after the study where mice had carbon nanotubes injected into their bellies; in this second piece of research they inhaled the nanotubes.

ETA Jan. 21, 2013: Dexter Johnson gives context and commentary about this latest research into long multiwalled nanotubes (MWNTs) which he sums up as the answer to this question “What if you kept the MWNTs short?”  in a Jan. 18, 2013 posting on his Nanoclast blog (on the IEEE [Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers] website)