Tiny Implantable LED Devices Help Shed Light On The Brain

Apr 11, 2013

Researchers at Washington University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have developed miniaturized electronic devices small enough to safely insert into the brains of live mice. The tiny wireless devices can target specific brain cells and influence behavior.

University of Illinois materials scientist John Rogers co-led the study and helped design the devices. He says they’re on the same size-scale as cells, so they can penetrate far down into the brain.

The micro-LED devices are much thinner than a human hair.
Credit University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign and Washington University-St. Louis

“Those devices are connected via very thin filamentary wires to an external control and power module, which also itself is very small, but which mounts on the outside surface of the skull almost like a cap,” Rogers said.

The devices include ultra-miniaturized light-emitting diodes, or LEDs, which allowed the researchers to stimulate the mice’s brain cells, some of which had been genetically engineered to respond to light.

Study co-lead, Washington University neuroscientist Michael Bruchas, says he and his colleagues wanted to find a way to control the brain circuits of the mice without using wires or tethers.

“We came up with a solution to allow for wireless control using similar technology that’s in your cell phone to actually control these micro-LEDs, and then in turn control inside, deep inside the brain, various populations of neurons that we’re interested in studying,” Bruchas said.

Bruchas says the devices will help researchers study mouse brain pathways involved in behaviors like anxiety and addiction.

These tiny devices are small enough to fit through the eye of a needle.
Credit University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign and Washington University-St. Louis

John Rogers says more broadly, the ability to integrate wireless electronic components into living animals opens up many possibilities for advances in research and human health.

He says in the future, similar technologies could be used to treat human brain disorders like Parkinson’s disease.

The current research is published in the journal Science.

Follow Véronique LaCapra on Twitter: @KWMUScience