New research melds mind and machine

By Brent Constantin

Continued research into biotics, the meshing of technology and biology, took another robo-step forward this week at the University of Calgary.

Research led by Dr. Naweed Syed, cell biology and anatomy department head in the faculty of medicine, has allowed chemical communication within brain cells to be “read” at a resolution previously unheard of.

In 2008, Syed made headlines when his lab, in collaboration with a German team, developed the first “neurochip”– a bionic hybrid technology that allowed snail brain cells to be stimulated through a chip and the resulting activity to be recorded.

“The notion was that we should be able to regain lost brain function from, for example, Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s disease,” said Syed. “When the brain cells die either due to stroke or trauma, they are dead forever, so how do you regain that lost brain function?”

Syed’s team approached the medical problem by using electronic chips to interface with the brain and recoup some of that function.

While connecting the human body to technology might sound like science fiction, the reality is that the secrets of the mind are now being unlocked internationally after Syed’s initial discovery. Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University hardwired the brains of macaque monkeys allowing them to operate a robotic arm and feed themselves peanuts.

Syed and others hope the neurochip technology will eventually lead to greater prosthetic control in amputees and those born with disabilities.

“But for that it’s really important that you design and develop devices that can talk to brain cells and then the brain cells can talk back to them,” said Syed. “You really have to make it a two-way communication, otherwise the conversations don’t really happen effectively.”

The communication in question occurs through subtle changes in the brain cells’ ion channels. These channels are tiny pores in a brain cell’s membrane and the flow of ions across them determines the nature of that cell.

“Because that happens all the time without any impulses which we normally detect, we wanted to be able to get access to this chatter which doesn’t get registered with normal technologies,” said Syed. “So in collaboration with NRC [the National Research Council of Canada] we have actually developed a chip which allows you to record a brain cell’s ion channel in a fully automated manner.”

“You take a brain cell, you put it on a chip and then it automatically begins to record ion channel activity which is unique to that cell,” said Syed.

The discovery is important because, according to Syed, all of the various drugs used for manipulating, monitoring or managing brain functions target these ion channels. The ion channel recordings could eventually grant researchers the ability to test drugs directly on cells, without long clinical trials and, perhaps most importantly, without bombarding the brain with drugs and their side effects in an effort to pinpoint a solution.

“I think that opens up the possibility for improving drug screening,” explained Syed. “It’s a very important step because what it allows you to be able to do is to interrogate brain cells and their function at a resolution and with an ease that hadn’t been attained before.”

The next step for the research is a planned partnership with a neurosurgery team to obtain epileptic tissue removed during brain surgery for further study.

“It was taken out because it wouldn’t respond to any drugs and we can take that tissue and actually put it on a chip to record ion channels, try to understand the behaviour of seizure cells and then we can test a number of different drugs to see which drug will block the activity of those cells or the seizure behaviour in those neurons of the brain cells,” said Syed.

Currently epileptic patients will feel relief for five to ten years after this type of surgery, but eventually suffer seizures again. The neurochip allows for the design of a personalized drug for the patients that will block specific ion channels linked to epilepsy in case of relapse.

“This opens up the possibility that you could test it all in a test tube,” said Syed. “So you can also test the side effects of a drug even within a very short time window without having to go through massive clinical trials for patients.”

Over the next several months Syed will be working on ethical protocols to move from snail to rat and then human cells collected from these epileptic patients.

“It will take a lot of work because, of course, it has never been done before,” said Syed. “But the proof of the principle that there is a device that can actually do this opens up the possibility that one could move this thing forward.”

“The most important thing personally for me is that it’s a Made in Canada technology,” said Syed. “And that is really important because we have to be the innovation savvy people.”

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