A future without addiction

By Sarelle Azuelos

A future with robotic prosthetic limbs, without any addictions and even free from pain may not be far off.

University of Calgary Hotchkiss Brian Institute research director Dr. Naweed Syed has been working with a team of scientists trying to connect brain cells to machines. In the recent past, electronics could stimulate cells or record data from a single cell, but Syed is hoping to interact with an entire network of cells, both recording and stimulating-leading to endless implications.

“Our team, in collaboration with Max Planck Institute in Germany, was the first to develop a bionic hybrid where we could stimulate a brain cell through a chip and record the activity of another brain cell through the chip,” said Syed.

It is this loop of communication and interaction that will eventually allow amputees to control electronic prosthetic limbs.

“For example, if someone looses an arm or leg, the brain cells are still intact but they have no job,” said Syed. “They have nothing else to do. We can now, with an electronic device, listen to those brain cells that are still firing.”

Syed explained that phantom pains experienced by amputees are the result of the leftover cells. If their impulses could be monitored and interpreted, they could control electronics.

Currently, Syed is working on a necessary step of this process. He has succeeded in growing brain cells onto small microchips and recording the reactions of the small networks when stimulated with a laser. Current experiments are being carried out with cells from snail brains.

The research has led to a recent $2.25 million grant from the Canadian Institute of Health Research as well as media attention from around the world. Syed pointed out group work was especially important in research areas that cover so much ground.

“It involves a number of partners, because you really need all parties-be they engineers, surgeons [or] basic scientists-to come together to pull this thing off,” he said. “I don’t know much about electronics. I don’t know much about physics or math.”

Syed is also working on a technique which would allow him to lead damaged nerve cells in specific directions and encourage them to grow therein. He explained that damaged tissue creates a chemical gradient which attracts growth. His team is working on creating this gradient artificially and growing nerve tissue where it has been severed or damaged.

“You have to really do trial and error [experiments] and you make slow, slow progress,” said Syed. “The hardest thing you have to predict is proof of principle-that, actually, it can be done. We may not have the Six Million Dollar Man running around, but the important thing will be that we can have a tremendous faith in our ability that one day,

we will be able to complete it.”

Syed estimated it would be five to 10 years before the technology could be seen in public arenas. He credited a local sports event for his inspiration to work in the field.

“I was watching a football game and somebody called me on my cell phone,” said Syed. “When it rang, I picked it up and it occurred to me that there were many people who had cell phones and that someone could track me with just a seven-digit number among millions of phones.”

Syed explained that cells have their own identification frequency,

which works much like a phone number.

“If we could tap into their ID, we could actually have an ID theft,” he said. “If you have an electronic device sitting outside your brain and then you are having a craving, let’s say, for an addiction. It can immediately say, ‘uh-oh, she’s having a craving again for that chocolate, lets shut it down.’ It can tap into that frequency and actually shut those cells down and silence them.”

The same technology could be used for alcohol and drug addictions, to block the reception of pain in the brain or epileptic seizures.

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