ByAxon - Towards an active bypass for neural reconnection
ByAxon is a European research and innovation project funded by the Horizon 2020 programme and under Future and Emerging Technologies framework. Its goal is to develop an active bypass based on nanotechnology aiming to neural reconnection directly at the spinal cord level. ByAxon is part of the Open Research Data Pilot.
Timeframe: 4 years (January 2017 - December 2020)
Budget: ca. 3 M€
Coordinator: IMDEA Nanociencia
A BOTTOM-UP APPROACHByAxon is devoted to the development of a new generation of sensors and electrodes based on nanotechnology materials for neural interfacing. We aim to design and build a prototype of an active implant that could work directly at the spinal cord (SC) level. This implant will be primary focused on restoring the transmission of signals in the injured SC, acting as an bi-directional local bypass, something not possible with current technology.
BEYOND BRAIN-MACHINE INTERFACES
Current neural interfacing approaches are based on detecting and/or triggering electric potentials mainly at the brain level, in order to diagnose or treat different neurological disorders. In spite of many newly proposed innovations to use more biocompatible and flexible support materials, or to use smaller and more densely packed electrode microarrays, the sensing/triggering active part of these devices is still always a rigid metallic plate, which in most of the applications needs to be in close contact with the neural tissue. These tend to produce scars and reactions in the tissue, which complicates the correct performance of long-term implants. The ultimate non-contact sensing magnetoencephalography devices detect magnetic-field pulses generated by potentials at the brain, but require cryogenic temperatures, and are restricted to diagnose applications in specialized medical centres. Present electrodes are also being used to develope new brain-machine interfaces, which employ electrical potentials read at a person’s brain to activate a response of a computer or robot. These devices can be a huge help for paralyzed patients due to spinal cord injuries (SCI). They can even be used in combination with functional electrical stimulation. In this case, the computer uses the received signals to trigger new electrical potentials and motion directly at paralyzed limbs. Recent proposals of such SCI bypasses are highly impressive. Still, there is of course much work to do in the field. Important present drawbacks are the large number of cables and electrodes they require and, specially, the lack of sensory feedback.
STIMULATING AND SENSING
We aim in this project to exploit the enhanced properties of nanostructured materials to develop less-invasive and more-efficient sensors and actuators to replace the present rigid metallic plates in chronic implants, which will allow tackling not only the brain but also the dorsal ganglia or the spinal cord with a long-lasting device. Our final goal is to fabricate a compact active SCI bypass prototype that will work locally at the spinal cord. In particular we will develop improved room-temperature magnetoresistance-based high-resolution magnetic sensors. In addition, we will develop functional electrical stimulation electrodes of enhanced adhesion and efficiency by using nanowire coatings. We will evaluate the performance of these interfaces on neuron cultures, spinal slices and ultimately on rat brains. At this early stage of the research we do not aim to make experiments on humans.
OUR VISION AND MISSION
We envisage that the new technology proposed here can potentially lead to a bypass to regain sensory functions by reading signals arriving from the dorsal ganglia to the spinal cord immediately below the lesion and using them to trigger new activation of sensory undamaged neurons above the injury, allowing the signal to reach the brain again. This will as well promote the neouroplasticity processes and, as a final goal, contribute to the restoration of neural activity at the spinal cord. In a broader picture, the technology developed in this project could serve as a basis for a new generation of advanced neural interfaces applications with utility in retinal implants, brain-recording systems for patients with epilepsy, and deep brain stimulation devices for Parkinson disease.
Our nanotechnology-based approach offers a novel perspective and will be complementary to, but independent from, present neural regenerative techniques. Our technology promises significant outcomes towards the development of an active local bypass and it has the potential to provide much-needed breakthroughs in future neuromedicine.
AN INTERDISCIPLINARY CONSORTIUM
ByAxon is supported by an interdisciplinary consortium, spanning from material scientists and electronic experts to biologists and clinicians. Our consortium is commited to gender equality: 60% of the supervisory board experts are female researchers and about 50% of the overall key people involved in the project are women.