Neural Electrodes Snake Around Blood Vessels, Up Nerves

Shape-memory materials could make medical devices longer lasting and easier to implant

3 min read
Image: University of California, San Diego
Snakes in a Brain: Shape-memory alloy microelectrodes would be programmed to bend their way around the brain’s blood vessels.
Image: University of California, San Diego

Getting neurons to communicate with electronics has always been hard—hard on the neurons, that is. Arrays of rigid metal electrodes implanted in the brain pierce blood vessels and dislodge support cells, causing the body to cover up the array with an insulating scar, which prevents many incoming signals from getting through. Engineers now think shape-memory materials could do the job much better, because they can be programmed to snake around blood vessels and climb nerves like a vine.

One of these materials, an alloy of nickel and titanium called nitinol, easily moves between shapes depending on the temperature. A target shape can be programmed by bending cool nitinol into position, heating it to a critical temperature, and holding it at that temperature for a period of time. Thereafter, even if you bend it into another shape, heating the alloy will transform it back into the programmed shape.

Keep Reading ↓Show less

This article is for IEEE members only. Join IEEE to access our full archive.

Join the world’s largest professional organization devoted to engineering and applied sciences and get access to all of Spectrum’s articles, podcasts, and special reports. Learn more →

If you're already an IEEE member, please sign in to continue reading.

Membership includes:

  • Get unlimited access to IEEE Spectrum content
  • Follow your favorite topics to create a personalized feed of IEEE Spectrum content
  • Save Spectrum articles to read later
  • Network with other technology professionals
  • Establish a professional profile
  • Create a group to share and collaborate on projects
  • Discover IEEE events and activities
  • Join and participate in discussions

A New Treatment for Arthritis: Vagus-Nerve Stimulation

Studies will soon show whether electroceuticals outperform pharmaceuticals

5 min read
A tablet computer, a smartphone, a grey belt with white stripes, a grey disc, and a small silver rectangle with a wire curled beside it.

Galvani’s system includes a nerve stimulator that attaches to the splenic nerve.

Galvani Bioelectronics

Monique Robroek once had such crippling arthritis that, even with the best available medications, she struggled to walk across a room. But thanks to an electronic implant fitted under her skin, she managed to wean herself off all her drugs and live pain-free for nearly a decade—until recently, when a viral illness made her rheumatoid arthritis (RA) flare up again.

This article is part of our special report Top Tech 2023.

Robroek’s long remission is “very impressive” and rare among patients with RA, says her doctor Frieda Koopman, a rheumatologist at Amsterdam UMC, in the Netherlands. Robroek’s experience highlights the immense potential of so-called bioelectronic medicine, also known as electroceuticals, an emerging field of treatment for diseases that have traditionally been managed with pharmaceuticals alone.

Keep Reading ↓Show less