Advanced Microsystems for Improved Neural Medical Solutions

 An artificial limb that is controlled by an amputee’s thoughts; cochlear implants that allow the deaf to hear; retinal implants that give sight to the blind; and cognitive implants that alleviate chronic pain, allow the paralyzed to walk, or provide relief from Parkinson’s disease or epilepsy. These are just some of the advances that one day may be possible through implantable neural devices that can substitute for a motor, sensory or cognitive function that has been damaged as a result of injury or disease.

“We’re talking about small electronic neural interface devices-micro- and nano-systems-that will can enable better personalized health care and improved quality of life,” says Florian Solzbacher, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Utah.

Solzbacher is part of a multi-disciplinary team of engineers and researchers who are focusing on developing such devices. A core focus of his work is developing next generation microsensors, micro-actuators, materials and fabrication technologies for biomedical and health care applications.

Solzbacher proposed and developed the first fully integrated wireless neural interface based on the Utah Electrode Array, a pill-sized device containing 100 tiny electrodes that was invented by distinguished professor of bioengineering Richard Normann. Solzbacher has since developed this system integration approach into a technology platform that can be applied to many different penetrating and non-penetrating electrode types.

Clinical Trials for Wireless Neural Devices

Through Blackrock Microsystems-a company founded by Solzbacher-these wireless neural interface devices are currently being tested for regulatory approval in preparation for pilot clinical trials involving just a few patients who suffer from paralysis or amputation. The patients are will be fitted with wireless devices in the brain or nerves to help them gain control over a wheelchair or a prosthetic device, the first of which will be a next-generation prosthetic arm developed under the DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) Revolutionizing Prosthetics Program (RP 2009) by Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. The devices are made to operate inside the “harsh environment” of the human body without breaking down or causing a harmful response.

“The wireless neural devices have the potential for a large range of applications,” he says. “In our studies right now, we are primarily looking at safety and efficacy. Once that is complete, then we think about potential products for patients.”

Although the trials are mainly about safety and about studying long-term failure rates, Solzbacher says some of the patients in past studies using wired versions of the devices have regained some motor control that they had lost.

“We have been able to show these devices have improved a patient’s communication, mobility and ability to participate in the world, although we have not completely restored all of their functioning yet,” he says. “Plus, we know that because it is implanted inside the body that at some point the device will fail. Ideally we want devices that can last a lifetime, but realistically now we’re looking at trying to make them go for at least 10 years, which would be a huge accomplishment.”

A Better Artificial Arm

The DARPA project, which uses Solzbacher’s neural interfaces, is an artificial arm research project sponsored by the Department of Defense in a bid to help wounded soldiers. The artificial arm is designed to be life-like and includes a modified Utah Electrode Array that records brain signals and stimulates the brain to potentially allow the artificial arm to move naturally in response to a patient’s thoughts, as well as give the patient a sense of touch.

Solzbacher is developing and fabricating the components for the implantable microarray used to record brain signals and stimulate the brain and he and is encapsulating the interface devices to make them durable and safe for implantation. Researchers at other institutions are developing the prosthetic itself.

The project is currently in Phase 3 development and within about a year will begin early clinical trials in which a few select patients will be fitted with the prosthetic.

The Utah array technology also plays a role in a project that may allow locked-in patients to “speak” with their thoughts. Solzbacher developed an array of 16 nonpenetrating microelectrodes that sit on speech areas of the brain without poking into it. In a recent study headed by Bradley Greger, assistant professor of bioengineering at the University of Utah, the “microECoGs” read brain signals while a volunteer patient with severe epileptic seizures repeated one of 10 words. Researchers recorded the signals and looked for patterns that correspond to the different words by analyzing changes in strength of different frequencies within each nerve signal. Depending on the speech area of the brain, they were able to achieve up to 90 percent accuracy in decoding the brain signals into words. The study also involved PhD student Spencer Kellis from electrical engineering, Richard Brown, dean of the College of Engineering, and Paul House, assistant professor of neurosurgery.

“We have recently submitted a proposal together that will see us build a custom wireless neural interface for chronic use in patients,” says Solzbacher.

Blackrock Technology

In addition to his own research, Solzbacher’s Blackrock Microsystems company called Blackrock Microsystems acts as a service provider for on and off-campus industrial institutional research and development partners. His company provides novel neural research tools such as implantable devices, electronics, equipment, tools and software to universities, laboratories, hospitals and companies worldwide.

The company draws on a legacy of high-tech innovation that began with Bionics, a spin-off from the University of Utah in 1997 co-founded by Professor Richard Normann. The company was later bought by Cyberkinetic Neurotechnologies. In 2008, the research business part of the company was acquired by Blackrock.

“Blackrock is unique in that it is not a classical startup company,” Solzbacher says. “It’s the only company I am aware of that is providing FDA-approved devices and electronics that allow you to tap into the nervous system with an implantable device for patients who need it.”

The company recently launched Blackrock Neuromed, which delivers “the most sophisticated EEG and single-cell recording systems to clinicians and researchers worldwide,” says Solzbacher. Other companies co-founded by Solzbacher include Blackrock Sensors and First Sensor Technology.