By Sally Pobojewski
News and Information Services
Miniature probes so precise they can stimulate or record signals from a single nerve cell will be created at a new U-M research center. The probes will be distributed without charge to research scientists worldwide who study the nervous system and neurological disorders.
Established with a $3.1 million, five-year grant from the Biomedical Research Technology program of the National Institutes of Health, the U-M Center for Neural Communication Technology also will sponsor meetings to teach researchers how to use the technology.
Our primary goal is to provide the tools neuroscientists need to learn how groups of neurons work together to control motor and sensory function, says David J. Anderson, professor of electrical engineering and computer science and director of the new center. We will be the interface between technology and the research scientist. Distribution of the devices to dozens of neuroscientists worldwide will be managed by Jamille F. Hetke, research engineer.
According to Anderson, the U-M is the only research institution with the facilities and expertise to supply microelectrode probes to the neurology research community. Research and development on microprobes for implantation in the central nervous system has been under way here since 1981 under the direction of Kensall D. Wise, the J. Reid and Polly Anderson Professor of Manufacturing Technology and professor of electrical engineering and computer science.
The size of a grain of pepper, the probes are fabricated by U-M graduate students and research scientists in the Solid-State Electronics Laboratory. They are made of precisely-etched silicon covered with thin films of conducting and insulating material. Tiny spots of gold or iridium oxide on the probe shank send or receive electrical signals from nerve tissue. Multi-strand silicon ribbon cables transmit nerve impulses from animal tissue to computers in the laboratory.
According to Anderson, the most immediate clinical application for neural probes will be related to development of an internal auditory implant to compensate for certain types of hearing loss. Long-range applications will be in treatment of muscle paralysis, blindness and localization of the onset of epileptic seizures, he added.
In future research at the center, U-M researchers will look for ways to extend the long-term reliability of the probes inside animal tissue.
Planning also is under way to develop new microelectrodes with a channel inside to deliver chemical agents that could change neural activity or mark a location for post-experiment analysis, Anderson says.
U-M scientists, in addition to Anderson and Wise, who are involved in the center include Richard A. Altschuler, associate professor of anatomy and cell biology and professor of otorhinolaryn-gology; Brian D. Athey, lecturer in anatomy and cell biology; Khalil Najafi, associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science; and Gregory H. Wakefield, associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science and assistant professor of otorhinolaryngology.