Movable micromotor brain implants

More recently, DC motors, piezoelectric motors and hydraulic motors have been used to move the electrodes, but all of the devices developed to date are still large and heavy. The new implant, developed in Jit Musuthwany’s Neural Microsystems Laboratory at Arizona State University, is the first use MEMS technology, and is the smallest and lightest yet.

Thedevice consists of an array of microelectrodes that are fabricated, along with a number of microscopic mechanical components, onto a silicon wafer. Each microelectrode is controlled by four  microactuators, one each to deactivate a release-up lock and release-down lock, and one each to move the electrode up and down. The actuators work using electro-thermal strips and are coupled to a ratchet system that drives the centre shuttle of each electrode up or down.

MEMS brain implant.jpg

This design allows for each microelectrode to be moved up and down independently of the others. In the resting position, the release-up and release-down locks prevent the microelectrodes from moving. Application of an electrical current to the appropriate electro-thermal strips causes them to expand, pulling the release-up or release-down lock away from the microelectrode to release it for movement, and to move it up or down. The movements occur in incremental 9 micron steps, equivalent to the spacing between the teeth on the side of the electrode. When the applied current is reduced to zero, the strips quickly cool down and return to their normal position, causing the electrode to move accordingly.

The researchers tested the movable microelectrode chip by implanting it into the cerebral cortex of 12 adult rats. After removing a section of the skull, they put the chips in place and anchored them by means of stainless steel screws. The microelectrodes were then inserted into the somatosensory cortex at a depth of about 1mm. Recordings were taken 3-4 times a week for an average period of 2-3 weeks. In 10 of the animals, the microelectrodes were moved an average of 60 microns from their original position, to sample neuronal activity from deeperdown in the cortex. The recordings obtained from them were compared to those from two controls, in which the electrodes were kept stationary throughout.

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Overall, the movable implants proved to be highly durable, remaining fully functional for the duration of the experiment. The recordings  even got better with time, because moving the microelectrodes  improved the signal-to-noise ratio.

The best performance was obtained from the 8 devices that were encapsulated in a nylon mesh to prevent leakage of fluids from the implant site. Of these, 6 gave reliable signals for 3 weeks, and 3 of them lasted for about 11 weeks. One device remained functional for almost 6 months, and only stopped working because of the rat’s wound healing response: tissue regrew and penetrated underneath the dental cement used to anchor the device to the skull, causing it to pop off the top of the skull.

This prototype is still rather cumbersome – although the MEMS chip measures just 3 mm × 600 μm × 6 mm (seen above in black), the packaging, which secures it to the skull and connects it to the computer, is much bigger. Nevertheless, the experiments show that this approach is promising. The device can be scaled up easily without making it any heavier, by incorporating more microelectrodes and reducing their spacing. The researchers suggest that improvements in the way the device is mounted on the skull, and in how the device is packaged, will eventually lead to implants that can give stable recordings for several years.


Jackson, N. et al. (2010). Long-term neural recordings using MEMS based movablemicroelectrodes in the brain Front. Neuroeng. 3: 1-13. doi: 10.3389/fneng.2010.00010

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