LEUVEN, Belgium IMEC has created a novel brain implant chip that uses CMOS to provide a Lego-like platform for plugging in arrays of tiny devices each sporting hundreds of contacts. The European research group also is developing a handful of techniques to interface electronics with the body, some of them working at the level of individual cells.
The efforts are part of a broad industry trend to expand the benefits of implanted electronics down to the molecular level. Researchers believe nanometer-scale electronics will be able to provide highly refined and personalized diagnosis and therapies.
Much of the work is still at the basic research level. Researchers are crafting the devices in lab experiments with cultures and animals, hopeful of many potential applications but unsure exactly how or when they will be used in humans.
Brian implant chips, for example, "don't necessarily improve the quality of life yet," said Chris Van Hook, a program director for smart implants at the Leuven, Belgium-based group.
Asked what is the path from research to commercialization for some of the medical efforts, Carmen Bartic, a group leader in bio-electronic systems at IMEC, replied, "that's what I'd like to know."
Nevertheless, IMEC got a lead in some respects over research on brain implants in two American universities, said Van Hook. The IMEC chip uses an array of 16 shanks measuring two to eight millimeters long with as many as 500 contacts patterned on each shank.
By contrast researchers at universities in Michigan and Utah have demonstrated arrays that use only about a dozen shanks all of one length, each acting only as a single electrode capable of giving a charge.
The IMEC design can record brain signals in greater detail and apply therapies to more localized groups of cells. In addition, it can accommodate a variety of plug-in shanks, including hollow ones on the drawing board for 2010 that could deliver tiny dosages of chemicals directly to a neuron.
The ideal design would be able to record and process neural activity and deliver and electrical or chemical stimulus when it determines nerve cell behaviors need to change. "You want to have multi-functionality," said Van Hook.
A handful of startups are working in brain implant chips, including ones spun out of the U.S. universities. At least one of those startups has trial implants in as many as six humans.
For its part, IMEC is evaluating whether it wants to create a spin-out company or joint venture based on its work. It has only tested its chip in lab animals to date.
Only a few hundred brain implant chips are sold each year at prices of about $1,000 each, almost entirely to academics conducting research. Long term, researchers hope the devices find a wide range of uses including stimulating muscle movements in handicapped patients and counteracting ailments including epilepsy, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder and Parkinson's disease.