Where the Metal Meets the Membrane

Since we launched this publication, our definition of neurotechnology has been, “the intersection of electronics and the nervous system.” Taking this in its most literal interpretation, there can be no more ideal representation of neurotechnology than the neural interface, the junction between synthetic device and living tissue. And that’s the topic of our two lead articles this month (see page 1).

Warren Grill’s article on advances in neural interfaces highlights some of the myriad new approaches researchers and commercial firms are using to transmit information between living cell and microdevice. In particular, the ability of neural engineers to dictate where neural cells will grow and what interconnections they will make is almost mind-numbing. Aside from the flexibility that comes with creating “designer neural circuits,” this promises to deliver a whole new class of device with a degree of intelligence never before attained in a medical product. And it brings to mind the admonition of Terry Hambrecht, former head of the NIH Neural Prosthesis Program, to “go beyond normal.”

The accompanying article in this issue on microfluidic devices points up that there are even more tools and techniques available to neural engineers than their counterparts in electronic circuit design ever had at their disposal. Because the nervous system functions as (or at least can be viewed as) a chemical transmission system as well as an electrical signaling network, devices that can transport chemicals and deliver electrical signals would seem to have a tremendous advantage.

Although biomedical engineers have devised other forms of implantable drug infusion devices capable of injecting chemicals into the body on a controllable basis, the degree of specificity possible with microfluidic/electronic hybrids is unprecedented. It’s not hard to imagine a new class of neuro device capable of injecting small quantities of several different neurotransmitters or drugs on demand to the precise brain regions required to treat a disorder such as Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, or depression—in addition to electrical stimulation or neuromodulation.

And perhaps this is the greatest immediate potential benefit of microfluidic research: the ability to attract the interest of the pharmaceutical industry—and the legions of venture capital firms serving that industry. If these firms saw neurotechnology as a potential delivery agent for their new drugs and drug candidates, maybe this would help bridge the great funding gulf between neuro devices and bio/pharma firms.

And once those new partnerships are formed, our new benefactors might finally begin to see the value of electrical stimulation and sensing in the central nervous system.

James Cavuoto
Editor and Publisher



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