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Delivering right on the spot … in the brain

This miniaturized system can deliver multiple drugs to precise locations in the brain, also monitor and control neural activity. The actual delivering “pipe” is hidden inside the steel needle laying on the hand of the researchers and it is 5 times tinier. Credit: MIT

We are making good progress in identifying neural circuits in our brain, small areas responsible for the execution of specific tasks. It is not always the case, actually several tasks are involving many areas in different regions of the brain. Also in this case, however, specific regions host neural circuits whose activity spread around influencing other neural networks.
The malfunctioning of these “networks” results in disabilities and the good news is that researchers are starting to find ways to restore (in some cases) the correct working of these neural circuits using drugs.

The problem, however, is that these drugs cannot be delivered through the blood vessels since they would reach “the whole brain” and what is good for a “faulty” circuit may be bad for a “good” circuit. Besides, many drugs cannot flow across the membrane separating the arteries and veins from the brain (the so called blood-brain barrier). This obstacle is exploited by new technologies based on ultrasound beams that can be focussed in a specific place of the brain resulting in the opening of the blood vessels membrane in that area thus letting the drug reach the neurones. This is great but in mot cases it is not enough because the area “flooded” by the drug is still quite large (on a neuronal scale).

Here comes the result from researchers at MIT that have created a way to deliver nanoliter of drugs to areas as small as a cubic millimetre. Again, on the neural scale a cubic millimetre is … well, huge: it contains some 50,000 neurones and 300 million synapses! It is anyhow so much smaller than the area that would be affected by a drug delivered through a blood vessel (even the one that creates a breach into the blood brain barrier), hence it can target much better the faulty circuit without too much effects on other nearby circuits.

The researchers have developed a micro tube (cannulas), 30 µm in diameter, as thin as a human hair, that is inserted in the right spot using a 150µm steel needle. The cannulas contains nano-pumps that can deliver nano litre of drugs as required. In addition the cannulas can also contain a micro electrode to sense electrical activity and monitor the effect of the drug.

We can expect amazing progress in the next decade fuelled by the convergence of technology and knowledge, each one leveraging on the other.


About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the New Initiative Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He is a member of the IEEE in 2050 Ad Hoc Committee. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.