European scientists have created a pioneering three-dimensional (3D) brain probing system that may provide new leads for understanding schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s disease and other serious brain conditions. Created under the NEUROPROBES ('Development of multifunctional microprobe arrays for cerebral applications') project, which received almost EUR 10 million under the 'Information society technologies' (IST) Thematic area of the EU's Sixth Framework Programme (FP6), the neurological breakthrough has already generated considerable interest and demand worldwide.
The multifunctional system, called NEUROPROBES, can sense and activate brain cells both electronically and chemically, and provides great promise for use in a variety of applications related to brain disorders and disease. It means neurologists can now study how different areas of the brain's prefrontal cortex are related to each other, something that could not be done with existing fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) scans, for instance.
The prefrontal cortex, which lies in front of the motor and premotor areas of the brain, is fundamental to understanding behavioural disorders such as schizophrenia and obsessive compulsive disorder. The coordinator of the project, Dr Herc Neves of the Interuniversity MicroElectronics Center in Belgium, explained that through NEUROPROBES you could, in theory, switch off one area chemically and look at how it affects the other areas.
'We know quite well what areas of the brain are implicated in this or that activity. We even know what relatively small regions of the brain are involved in learning and cognitive tasks, for example,' said Dr Neves. 'But the bridge between that regional activity and activity at the cellular level is still incomplete. That's where it is important to have this kind of probing platform.'
He added that one of the main uses for the system will be to provide precise diagnoses prior to brain surgery, such as in the case of a patient with epilepsy. 'You have a patient that is about to be operated on, and you want to remove as little tissue as possible. By pinpointing where the seizure is generated, you remove only that tissue. It means safer, less invasive surgery,' noted Dr Neves.
During the course of the four-year project, the team also focused on the hearing processes of the brain. They believe NEUROPROBES has the potential to generate new information on those processes closer to the cortex. In the case of people with nerve damage in this area, the system could contribute to ways of directly stimulating the auditory cortex.
But the system also has the capacity to provide insight into ordinary, everyday tasks and normal brain behaviour. Professor Giacomo Rizzolatti from the University of Parma in Italy explained how the system could reveal information on mirror neurons, neurons that fire both when we perform something and when we observe the same action being performed by another person. This 'mirror' effect takes place as if the observer is actually performing the act themselves, as is the case when we dream about an action.
Professor Rizzolatti said it was this type of research that the system's probes were designed to facilitate, and that the implications for learning as a result of NEUROPROBES are enormous. 'That, in turn, has implications for people with cognitive disabilities. So, for example, we could understand a lot more about autism if we could understand these mirror neurons better,' added Professor Rizzolatti.
Future start-up and spin-off companies are expected to manufacture the probes and keep up with the huge demand expected internationally.
The following technological, scientific and industrial partners collaborated under the NEUROPROBES project: Interuniversity MicroElectronics Center (Belgium), Leuven University (Belgium), Philips (Belgium), Collège de France (France), Institut für Mikrosystemtechnik (Germany), Hungarian Academy of Sciences (Hungary), Parma University (Italy), Institut für Mikrotechnik und Informationstechnik der Hahn-Schickard-Gesellschaft (Germany), Micronit Microfluidics (Netherlands), University Miguel Hernández de Elche (Spain), Mälardalen University (Sweden), Neuchâtel University - IMT (Switzerland), University of Cambridge (UK), and Cochlear Technology Centre (UK).