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Researchers discover that brain implants were not working by relying solely on neurons.

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Image Credit: Illustration courtesy of Mohammad Reza Abidian.

A group of researchers from Michigan State University, University of Pittsburgh’s Swanson School of Engineering and Mayo Clinic claim that brain implants may require more than just neurons to function. The research, published in Nature Biomedical Engineering, has revealed that is also important to target glial cells too.

Brain implants work by stimulating the nervous system by targeted electrical stimulation. This will allow the implant to interfere with the abnormal brain activity, making it closer to normal. These are several types of brain implants such as cochlear implants (used for hearing-impaired people) and retinal implants. One of the most common implant nowadays is used for treating Parkinson’s disease (A neurodegenerative disorder that mostly affects the dopamine-producing neurons). The ‘deep brain stimulation’ by the implants does not treat the condition but reduces or eliminate the tremors and rigid movement associated with the condition. This type of stimulation is also known to reduce symptoms of another condition -obsessive compulsive disorder. Trials are underway to test ‘deep brain stimulation’ for treatment of other disorders. 

A neuron cell is the basic working unit of the nervous system. It’s function is to receive and send electrical messages. Around 100 billion neurons are present in the human brain and these are surrounded by what is known as glial cells which are known to be the most numerous cells in the central nervous system. These provide support as well as insulation between them. They have an important role in forming scar tissue preventing the spread of the injury. 

Takashi Kozai, the assistant professor of bio-engineering at the University of Pittsburgh Swanson School of Engineering said, “From providing growth factor support and ensuring proper oxygen and nutrient delivery to the brain to trimming of obsolete synapses and recycling waste products, recent findings show that glial cells do much more to ensure brain activity is optimized.” The weak signals from glial cells are much more difficult to detect than the strong electrical activity of the neurons. With the help of new technology researchers will be able to detect glial cell activity better. this is important as Kozai claims that “Dysfunction in glial cells has been implicated as a cause and/or major contributor to an increasing number of neurological and developmental diseases. Therefore, it stands to reason that targeting these glial cells (in lieu of or in combination with neurons) may dramatically improve current treatments.”

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