The University of Virginia (UVA) is collaborating on a new brain implant for people living with Alzheimer’s that may one day help manage and reverse the disease’s degenerative effects.
The fiber-based implant is smaller than a human hair and will be used to “give better real-time imaging” of a patient’s situation, according to an update from UVA.
Harald Sontheimer, professor and chair of neuroscience at the University of Virginia School of Medicine is testing the implant using a colony of mice genetically engineered to have Alzheimer’s. He is doing so with help from Xiaoting Jia, a researcher at Virginia Tech; and Song Hu from Washington University in St. Louis.
According to the researchers behind the project, the implant sends signals to monitor blood-flow and how well oxygen is flowing to brain tissue. Vessels in the brain absorb the light energy as heat, which causes a “physical expansion” that results in sound waves. Those sound waves “report oxygen tension in the tissue,” the researchers noted.
The device is also capable of reading a brain’s electrical activity and sending electrical stimulation to encourage blood flow. It also has hollow channels that will enable the delivery of drugs, the researchers noted.
Upon installation, the implant will “extend to the top of the skull” and be held in place with dental cement, with ports providing access for the channels.
An earlier version of the device has already proven to be “sustainable and effective” at reducing seizures by interrupting the “faulty brain signals” that cause them, according to the researchers.
“With Alzheimer’s, what we’re envisioning is the real-time monitoring of oxygen, or oxygen tension. The moment oxygen drops, we are immediately administering vasodilators,” Sontheimer said in the UVA update. “It’s sort of a miniaturized approach of what you do when a patient has a heart attack. You give them nitroglycerin to open up all the blood vessels at once and get maximum blood flow back. In this instance, we would maximize blood flow to this region of the brain, hopefully rescuing neural function there.”
Testing of the implant is also hoping to determine how Alzheimer’s disease starts, with Sontheimer theorizing misfolded proteins that form within the brain, called amyloid proteins, build up around blood vessels and strangle them rather than the tangle itself being toxic.
The first tests are anticipated to begin in December.