Sugar-Powered Brain Implant Could Help Reverse Paralysis

Researchers at MIT have discovered something remarkable about sugar. Not only can it power human cells in the form of glucose, it can also be used as an energy source for implantable fuel cells that could be used to drive highly efficient brain implants of the future.

In a recent issue of the journal PLoS ONE, scientists describe the development of a tiny silicon wafer that uses glucose present in the brain’s cerebrospinal fluid to generate several hundred microwatts of power. This is enough energy to fuel an ultra-low-power and clinically useful neural implant without causing any detrimental effects to the body.

brain-fuel-cell

Image via Sarpeshkar Lab/MIT

The researchers, led by Rahul Sarpeshkar, an associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science at MIT, fabricated the fuel cell on a silicon chip, allowing it to be integrated with other circuits that would be needed for a brain implant. Although the chip appears to be quite large in the picture, the largest version is only 64 x 64 mm.

For those who might be worried about implanting themselves with a Borg-like computer chip, it’s important to note that the scientists took care to only use materials that have a long history of bio-compatibility. It consists of a platinum catalyst that strips electrons from glucose, mimicking the activity of cellular enzymes that break down glucose to generate ATP, the cell’s energy currency.

The researchers theorize that if implanted into the sack of glucose-rich fluid that keeps the brain from banging into the skull, the implant could generate enough power to operate continuously for decades. This would eliminate the need for battery-replacement surgeries that are required for current biomedical implants.

Still, as Gizmag points out, the tiny fuel cell has not yet been tested in an actual brain. Although the scientists hope their creation can one day be used to help those with spinal-cord injuries overcome paralysis, it will take years of further research before it can be tested on human patients.

Beth Buczynski is a freelancer writer and editor currently living in the Rocky Mountain West. Her articles appear on Care2, Ecosalon and Inhabitat, just to name a few. So far, Beth has lived in or near three major U.S. mountain ranges, and is passionate about protecting the important ecosystems they represent. Follow Beth on Twitter as @ecosphericblog