An engineering researcher at the University of Arkansas has developed a wireless, implantable biosensor that may one day help physicians treat patients with neurological brain disorders such as Parkinson’s Disease, Alzheimer’s Disease and epilepsy.
“There is no cure for Parkinson’s,” said Vijay Varadan, Distinguished Professor of electrical engineering and the Graduate Research Faculty Endowed Chair in Microelectronics and High Density Electronics. “But if neurites in the brain can be manipulated properly, we can control symptoms of the disease. We can stop tremors, and patients can live relatively normal lives.”
Once inside the body, Varadan’s biosensor senses and monitors the release of essential chemicals produced by the brain, including dopamine. Otherwise known as a neurotransmitter, dopamine is a chemical that facilitates communication between neurons in the brain.
A specialized set of neurons in the substantia nigra section of the brain are the source of chemical activity that controls normal movements of the body. But when neurons in the substantia nigra degenerate, there is a loss of dopamine. This loss of dopamine causes nerve cells to fire excessively, making it impossible for Parkinson’s patients to control their movements. The loss of motor control is manifested in tremors or trembling hands, two of the primary symptoms of Parkinson’s.
Varadan’s biosensor records the loss of dopamine and stimulates activity between neurons and neurites, which are immature, developing neurons.
In addition to sensing the release of chemicals and contributing to the growth of healthy, dopamine-producing neurons, the biosensor can communicate with an organic, polymer-based sensor attached to an area of the body in which a tremor occurs. The signal from the implanted sensor can control and direct the motion of the area of the body on which the exterior sensor is attached.
“This exterior sensor can be easily placed under a wrist watch,” Varadan said. “Essentially, the implanted sensor detects the sensor attached to the watch, controls the trembling and tells the hand where to go.”
This same process could work for people who have prosthetic limbs, Varadan said. With the polymer-based sensor attached to a prosthetic arm, for example, a signal from the implanted biochip could direct movement and motion of the artificial arm.
Varadan has several patents pending for the technology, which is supported by multi-million dollar grants from private health-care companies. He is also pursuing approval from the US Food and Drug Administration.
In addition to holding the endowed chair and his appointment as a distinguished professor, Varadan is director of the university’s High Density Electronics Center and a professor of neurosurgery at University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in Little Rock.