Scientists from the United Kingdom and Italy have developed a new process in which a carbon form known as graphene is combined with neurons without sacrificing the integrity of these cells.
This revolutionary technology is believed to be a stepping stone for the creation of graphene-based electrodes, which can be implanted in the brain of people with motor disorders, such as Parkinson's disease, in order to regain control of their damaged limbs.
Interfacing Graphene With Neurons
While previous studies have established the ability of interfacing graphene with neurons, most of the earlier treatment processes used left the material a significantly low signal to noise ratio.
This inspired researchers from the Cambridge Graphene Centre in the UK and the University of Trieste in Italy to develop a way to use untreated graphene for this purpose. The idea was to allow the material to retain its electrical conductivity enough to make it more conducive for the creation of electrodes.
Laura Ballerini, a professor at the University of Trieste and one of the authors of the study, explained that after successfully interfacing graphene directly to neurons, they tested the cells' ability to generate brain activity through electrical signals. They discovered that the neurons were able to retain their properties for neuronal signaling without significant changes.
Ballerini said their study presents the first instance wherein untreated graphene-based materials were used to observe neuronal synaptic activity.
The researchers believe this new process can be used to create implantable neural electrodes that are better at producing electrical impulses than conventional designs based on silicon or tungsten.
One particular issue that researchers have with silicon- or tungsten-based electrodes is that they tend to lose their electrical signal over time. This is because of the formation of scar tissue around the electrodes after they have been into the patient's body.
Not only is graphene a flexible material and excellent conductor of electricity, it is also biocompatible and stable when inserted in the body.
In their experiment using brain cells of rats, Ballerini and her colleagues found that graphene electrodes that were left untreated were able to interface with neurons well. They observed that the neurons remained healthy and transmitted electric impulses normally without causing any formation of scar tissues.
The team hopes that their findings lead to the development of highly sensitive brain implants that are capable of harnessing and controlling brain functions with minimal side effects.
The findings of the Cambridge Graphene Centre and University of Trieste study are featured in the journal ACS Nano.