Yes, there’s an app for that! Korean and American scientists have invented a device capable of controlling neural circuits and distributing light and drug therapies to defined areas of the brain that is completely manipulated by a smartphone app. Neuroscientists now have a tool to trigger any specific combination or sequence of light and drug delivery into an implanted target animal without being present in the laboratory.
Conventional methods involve optical fibers and solid metal tubes that hinder the patient’s movement with cumbersome equipment and even cause lesions in brain tissue over time. Although soft probes and wireless platforms have been in use for some time, there have always been limitations to delivering drugs for long periods. Drug evaporation and depleted supplies have been a problem in the past but the new implant takes all of that into consideration. Researchers from the University of Washington in Seattle and the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology invented a neural implant with a replaceable drug cartridge. This will allow neuroscientists several months to study the same brain circuits without the problem of running out of drugs.
These devices are currently used only in research animals but there is interest in improving the technology for human use. Scientists believe that these devices at work in animals moving freely can not only speed up discoveries of the brain but also give a more authentic picture of day to day brain function. Complex pharmacological studies using the implant can help to develop new therapies for emotional disorders, addiction, and pain. Researchers can also get a better look at how neuromodulators tune behavior in the brain and also how to investigate the neural circuit basis of behavior.