KU Medical Center neurobiologist Dr. Nudo has developed a cutting-edge, battery-powered implant that restores damaged pathways in the brain. The tiny chip may one day have dramatic ramifications for brain damage patients, stroke victims and those suffering from paralysis.
Dr. Randolph Nudo and team
Randolph Nudo’s father was a TV repairman, so he was raised learning tricks of the trade.
“I grew up fixing circuits,” Nudo says.
But he didn’t want to make TV repair his career. Instead, Nudo followed his passion for life sciences and became a neurobiologist. And, as fate would have it, his knowledge of circuitry bode him well.
Because, with his help, there is finally hope for those paralyzed because of brain injury.
Nudo, along with three other collaborators, has developed a lightweight, battery-powered, microdevice brain implant (It’s three millimeters and about the size of a small paperclip) that one day has the potential to help those patients recover their motor skills. In essence, the device’s electronic components may help repair neural circuits disrupted by head injury or disease. The implant, which is powered by a simple watch battery, works by recording signals from a part of the brain that controls sensory function, translating them into electrical impulses and then using those impulses to stimulate a different part of the brain that controls motor function.
battery-powered brain chip
“I’m very excited,” says Nudo, a professor of molecular and integrative physiology and director of the Landon Center on Aging at the University of Kansas Medical Center and the lead author of a study on the device.
In fact, when Nudo first saw a video showing before-and-after tests done on rats with injured brains, he says he jumped for joy. The rats implanted with the device were actually able to reach food pellets with ease, a task they were not able to perform prior to the implant.
“I couldn’t fake that,” Nudo says of his excitement. “That’s actually true.”
The thrill he and other researchers feel stem from the idea that developing technologies are getting closer to helping millions of stroke patients, soldiers with traumatic brain injuries and others with abnormal brain function. After successful tests were conducted on rats in late 2013, similar studies are planned for monkeys this year.
“In a perfect world, I would say that within four or five years we would see our first in-human studies,” Nudo says, adding that, if successful, the device could augment or perhaps replace rehabilitation therapy.
And there’s more.
“These types of devices eventually could potentially be a way that we can treat even psychiatric disorders like schizophrenia,” he says. “I don’t pretend that this is going to be a panacea that’s going to fix everything, but it’s a new way of thinking about the brain. Instead of drugs that really will affect the entire brain and other parts of the body, here we’re really focused on specific pathways within the brain, leaving everything else alone, and really trying to use the communication tools that the brain uses by replicating with electronics what the brain does naturally.”
Nudo and KU Medical Center scientist David Guggenmos, plus two scientists from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, are the masterminds behind the technology, which has recently received patent approval.
An important question facing researchers is how long do the effects of the device last.
“We really need to know whether the device needs to remain in place forever or whether we can treat and then remove it,” Nudo says.
Under the rat study, when the microdevice was switched off, the rats with injured brains struggled to reach for and grasp food pellets. When the device was switched on, the rats were able to perform that task with ease. Nudo says after two weeks of microdevice-delivered stimulation, the rats performed about at pre-injury levels.
Paul Camarata, chairman of neurosurgery at KU Medical Center, likens the device to a prosthesis.
“We’ve always known that the brain is fairly plastic, that it can develop new connections where old ones have died,” he says. “That’s kind of like what this device is doing. It’s promoting new connections to restore function. Dr. Nudo has really been on the forefront of this for many, many years.”
Camarata says as long as the adjacent parts of the injured brain are still alive there’s every hope the device will eventually work on humans.
“I see people in my office every day that are coming in and asking us, ‘Is there any more you can do for stroke? Do you have anything new that can help us?’ And ultimately, we think this may be the answer,” he says.
Nudo’s research is funded in part by the U.S. Department of Defense, concerned with injuries troops have sustained in Afghanistan and Iraq. Similar research is underway on technologies to help those with spinal-cord injuries.
Costs associated with the rat study within the confines of the medical center hit upwards of $2 million, Nudo says, which is relatively small compared to what it takes to get a device like this into humans for clinical trials, which can take tens of millions of dollars.
So the next steps are for KU Medical Center to develop a business plan with the intent of licensing the technology to a yet-to-be-formed startup biotech company, which will move forward with venture capitals and angel investors.
To Nudo, the best part of this technology is the hope it offers people.
“Even if this doesn’t happen tomorrow, next year or five years, we know eventually it’s going to happen,” he says.