On his cell phone, Jonathan Viventi, a biomedical engineer at New York University’s Polytechnic School of Engineering, displays what looks like a meteorologist’s map of a fast-moving storm: red, orange, yellow, green, and blue patches swirl in ominous, complex patterns. In fact, the video represents the highest-resolution electrical data yet recorded over a large surface of an animal’s brain during an epileptic seizure.
Previously, researchers using lower-resolution technology had observed repetitive spiking patterns during seizures. But those recordings were “vastly undersampling the electrical activity of the brain,” says Viventi. His innovation was to develop a better interface that could capture more detail, revealing patterns of waves rotating, changing direction, and moving across the brain’s surface.
The improved imaging is possible because of an implant that is roughly one centimeter square and can be positioned, in theory, anywhere on the surface of the brain. The implant incorporates flexible electronics into an array of sensors; indeed, Viventi was the first to move electronics, which are usually rigid and located far from such sensors, directly to the brain’s surface. “This allows us to amplify and combine signals directly at the source, so that we don’t need to have one wire for each sensor,” he says. That, he adds, “lets us build much higher-resolution interfaces with the brain.”
Viventi imagines that doctors will use his implants as a temporary way to monitor seizures and plan treatment, including further surgery, in people with epilepsy. In the longer term, he hopes that permanent implants for patients with severe epilepsy can sense brain activity and stimulate the appropriate regions. He hopes to win approval for clinical trials of his devices, though to date the team has only done experiments on animals.
Viventi first became interested in epilepsy when he was a graduate student in bioengineering at the University of Pennsylvania. It was because he was struck by the crude technology used to evaluate the patients that he decided to develop a system for recording sensitive signals from thousands of sensors placed directly on the surface of the brain—a mission that at the time seemed “kind of crazy,” he says.
Ultimately, one of the biggest challenges will be adapting the electronic interface so that it doesn’t degrade over time. “Our bodies are full of salt water, and salt does not work well with electronics,” he says.
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