The brain’s natural complexity is the primary reason it is difficult to study. Experts contend the largest challenge facing neurosciences is that the basics of the discipline remain largely unknown. Fortunately, academics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and other prominent US universities suggest the Convergence in Healthcare movement may hold the key to helping medical researchers unlock the brain.
In a 2016 whitepaper, MIT researchers defined Convergence in Healthcare as "the integration of insights and approaches from historically distinct scientific and technological disciplines," specifically chemistry, engineering, physics, life science, mathematics, computing and IT. Convergence in biomedicine, especially the integration of life science and technology, has led to the development of tools that may change how we prevent, diagnose and treat illnesses of the brain.
Listed are a few of the many promising neuroscience technologies that have arisen with the assistance of convergent research.
Convergent research conducted by programs such as the National Institutes of Health Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative aims to provide a catalog of the brain’s different cell types, as well as develop a map to understand how neurons are connected and fit together. While the concept seems simple, mapping the brain actually poses a serious challenge for researchers due to the organ’s extreme density.
To explore new ways to map and research connections and form within the brain, scientists developed a tool named CLARITY, which uses a combination of molecule-bonding hydrogel and detergents to preserve the whole of the brain’s structure and render it transparent. This gives scientists the ability to study neural connections over long distances within the tissues.
Though the primary research goal of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is to create innovative technologies to aid national security, much of its innovative research intersects with the needs and aims of the healthcare sector. One example is the convergent research project focused on a brain implant many researchers are calling "neural dust." The project involves the development of electrode-containing microdevices capable of detecting the electrochemical signals put out by neurons in the brain. For DARPA, the goal is to create a brain implant to facilitate the transmission of information digitally to the world outside a person’s mind. For medical scientists, neural dust could be a crucial tool in deciphering neural coding.
The medical use of neural dust centers on engineering the particles to receive signals from outside to direct them to fire in specific ways. For example, if scientists are able to identify the neural code for a condition or ailment rooted in the brain, such as paralysis, they could deploy neural dust to stimulate the affected nerve with the exact code to restore movement to the affected limb.
Bioprinting brain matter
While stem cell research advances more each year, generating tissue and structures for even the simplest human organs remains a challenge. As the brain is the body’s most complex organ, it is easy to imagine how complex the process would be to create even a miniaturized version of it. However, thanks to convergent research, scientists are finding they may be able to do exactly that.
Through the combined efforts of life science and technology, scientists used a 3-D printer loaded with human stem cells to "bioprint" a brain-like tissue. Though not as impressive as the printing of an entire miniature brain, scientists see this ability to 3-D print tissue as a major development in the treatment of illnesses such as Parkinson’s disease, schizophrenia and epilepsy, as well as brain injury. Cells taken from a patient’s body could be used to print replacement tissues for areas of the brain damaged by illness without the risk of tissue rejection.
The life sciences also harnessed the power of technology to explore the creation of implantable sensors capable of monitoring health conditions in the mind. Convergent research previously resulted in the development of devices to both recognize and respond to the symptoms of diseases such as epilepsy and Parkinson’s.
This year, researchers developed a new brain sensor that can be adhered to flow diverters in patients treated for brain aneurysms. The sensor monitors the efficiency of blood flow through the diverter and could significantly reduce a physician’s reliance on costly testing after the diverter has been implanted.