“Okay, I’m going to implant this device in your brain.” No, it’s not dystopian science fiction, but a cutting edge treatment for certain medical conditions. Brain implants can be life changing—in a good way—for people suffering from diseases like medication-resistant seizures.

Xiaoting Jia, assistant professor of ECE, and her students are crafting minimally invasive fiber optic devices that can detect and treat seizures and other diseases.

Xia has received two recent grants from the National Institutes of Health for her research, totaling more than $600,000.

Although surprisingly robust in many ways, brains don’t always react well to being probed. Jia and her team are making multifunctional devices that are minimally invasive and biocompatible.

Minimally invasive brain implants

If you want to disturb the brain as little as possible, you typically want fewer holes and smaller devices, and Jia’s team is tackling both goals.

Using “bouquet-like” devices, Jia’s team can deliver fibers to multiple regions in the brain through a single, tiny surgical hole. “Because our fibers are so flexible, they can go through a very small surgical hole, then spread out in the brain,” Jia explains.

Guiding the fibers through a helical scaffold, they can deliver fibers to many locations with a single incision. “We can precisely predict where each fiber is going by controlling the angle and length of each fiber,” notes Jia. “We’re talking micron scale, just a few times thicker than hair.”

Jia’s fibers are also bidirectional and multifunctional, leading to greater utility per micron. Each fiber is both a sensor and a delivery mechanism for either medication or electrical stimulation. “We can see what goes wrong, and intervene in the events and treat the disease,” she says.

For her seizure research, Jia plans to use deep brain multielectrode fibers to detect where the seizure starts, then treat it with either medication or an electrical signal before clinical onset.

Not only could these devices treat medication-resistant seizures, but they could also treat seizures with minimal side effects from medication—when medication is delivered directly to the brain, less is needed.

Material challenges

Biocompatibility is a concern for anything that needs to exist in the brain over time. “A major challenge is that existing devices are pretty rigid,” notes Jia. “These kinds of biomedical compatibility issues can damage the brain, and are not good for long term implants.”

Another concern is that brains sometimes dissolve certain materials, like silicon. To address this, Jia and her team use multimaterial fiber optics, combining metal, polymer, and sometimes semiconductor materials in one fiber.

Using a fiber drawing tower, Jia’s team can precisely combine multiple materials to make the fibers they need. Starting from a preform of the material, they stretch the fibers out controlling for temperature, drawing speed, feeding speed, rotation, diameter, tension, and more.

From brain surgery to device manufacturing
This kind of research is truly multidisciplinary, says Jia, whose students do everything from brain surgery (on mice) to manufacturing the devices they implant.

Jia notes how important it is to speak the language and understand the struggles of the neuroscientists they work with: “Engineers can make a very large impact in treating diseases by creating advanced tools, but if we don’t know where the problems are we can’t make a big impact. We need to get hands on and get into the field.”

Although there are many challenges to overcome in many fields, these devices are going to improve people's daily lives in reality—not just science fiction.