A collaborative work between scientists at Princeton, Columbia, and Cambridge is offering new possibilities to study traumatic brain injuries:
Flexible electronic membranes may overcome a longstanding dilemma faced by brain researchers: How to replicate injuries in the lab without destroying the electrodes that monitor how brain cells respond to physical trauma.
Developed by a team of engineers at Princeton University, Columbia University and the University of Cambridge, the membranes feature microelectrodes that are able to withstand the sudden stretching that is used to simulate severe head trauma. The systems could allow far more nuanced studies of brain injury than previously possible and may lead to better treatments in the minutes and hours immediately following the injury. The work also has implications for other areas of medicine, including next-generation prosthetics, as well as myriad industry and military applications.
“This is an immediate application of the electronics of the future,” said Sigurd Wagner, a Princeton professor of electrical engineering. Wagner and former Princeton postdoctoral researcher Stephanie Lacour are part of a National Institutes of Health-funded project to develop flexible arrays of microelectrodes for brain research. Led by Barclay Morrison III, an assistant biomedical engineering professor at Columbia, members of the team will present their work at the April 9-13 conference of the Materials Research Society in San Francisco.
Existing techniques to study traumatic brain injury have been limited because it is almost impossible to insert an electrode into a cell to obtain a recording, remove the probe, injure the cell, and then reinsert the probe into the same cell, Morrison said. Because of this limitation, researchers rely on other surrogate markers of injury, such as cell death…
Together, the engineers created the first working stretchable circuits by linking tiny pieces of traditional semiconductors mounted on a rubbery membrane with thin pieces of gold. Even when stretched, the circuits maintained their ability to conduct electricity.
Research on the flexible membranes also is likely to contribute to the longstanding challenge of connecting electronic devices to the human nervous system, Wagner said. Prosthetic devices, for example, could be coated with electronic “skin” that senses touch and temperature and sends that information back to the brain like any natural human limb.
“A basic problem with the interface between electronics and living tissue is that electronics are hard and tissues are soft,” he said, noting that nerve cells quickly become irritated when in contact with the hard electrodes of today. The hope is that the devices of the future will flex with living tissue, maintaining a connection without damaging the human cells.
Press release: Deflecting damage: Flexible electronics aid brain injury research …
Prof. Morrison’s Neurotrauma and Repair Laboratory…
More: Elastic Electrodes [Scienceline; Dec 2006 article]