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New microchip talks to brain cells

Calgary researchers have created a microchip that “communicates” with brain cells, a discovery that could help patients with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.

A team at the University of Calgary, led by Naweed Syed, figured out how to refine a so-called neurochip to communicate with animal brain cells.

“We have never been able to record the subtle activity from brain cells that we have now because this is actually the last frontier,” Syed explained on Tuesday.

The new technology, conducted with the National Research Council and published online this month in the journal, Biomedical Microdevices, improves on a previous chip by Syed’s team in 2004 that used brain cells from snails.

The neurochip is able to monitor the electrical and chemical dialogue between brain cells, and to track subtle changes in brain activity. Accessing those areas means researchers could test drugs to treat several neurological conditions accurately and quickly.

Laurine Fillo, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease eight years ago, takes medication to manage her symptoms but has always hoped for a better solution.

“I told my husband probably five years ago: ‘Oh, one day they’ll develop a microchip that they can implant in my brain and it’ll control the symptoms and help me manage this disease,'” she said.

The Calgary research gives her something to look forward to.

“That’s something you sort of have to live with when you have a chronic illness, that there is no cure for, and no cause. If there’s no hope, then it’s hard to go on on a day-to-day basis.”

In the coming months, the team from the faculty of medicine plans to begin testing drugs using the tiny silicon device, embedded with a network of brain cells surgically removed from patients with epilepsy.

Researches hope a similar chip can one day allow an amputee to control a robotic arm or leg, something only seen currently in movies.

“I can’t be too sure I might see that final bionic hybrid, you know that whole Terminator idea that always gets brought up, but for sure we are going to make a lot of progress,” said researcher Collin Luk.

CBC News

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