IMDEA Nanociencia is coordinating the ByAxon project funded by the European Union through the programme for Future and Emerging Technologies (FET-OPEN, € 3.7 M, 48 months). The consortium consists of four research centres, a hospital and a medium-size company bringing together the expertise from four different European countries (Spain, Italy, France and Germany), and will involves Material Science, Electronics, Biology and Clinics in order to develop a new technology based on Nanoscience with medical applications. The most ambitious goal is to fabricate a prototype of an active implant that could work directly at the spinal cord level, as a bypass. The fundamental purpose of the device would be to restore the electrical neural activity for the recovery of limb sensory and motor functions, acting as a local bridge in the spinal cord, something not possible with the current technology.
The ByAxon project pursues the development of high-resolution magnetic sensors that could work at room temperature in vivo. These new sensors could be employed not only in medical devices, but also in brain-machine interfaces for daily life. This could, for instance, make wireless communication effective to enable computer and robot control by means of only thoughts.
Magneto-resistive materials with stepped surfaces at the nanoscale will be employed to develop sensors able to detect the magnetic field produced by neural activity, and whose magnitude is 10.000 times smaller than the Earth’s magnetic field. Currently, it is only possible to detect such signals using magneto-encephalography, that requires the use of superconductive materials and hence, liquid nitrogen to operate.
In parallel, the ByAxon researchers will work in the fabrication of electrodes of high compatibility and adhesion, thanks to a surface covered by conductive nanowires. These electrodes will emit electric pulses that trigger the neural activity, and could find applications in Parkinson treatments or retinal implants. ByAxon covers in this way the detection and production of neural activity with a new generation of interfaces of high resolution and flexibility. Ultimately, ByAxon seeks the interaction at local level in the spinal cord, instead of the brain, to create compact devices that could recover the lost functionalities in a spinal cord injury.
The Hospital Nacional de Parapléjicos, together with the Institute of Material Science (CSIC) in Madrid lead the biocompatibility studies within the project. Hospital Nacional de Parapléjicos, from the Health Service of Castilla La Mancha has over 40 years of experience and has become a reference centre in the rehabilitation of spinal cord injury in Spain.
The challenge that ByAxon faces is complex, currently strategies followed by other research groups towards the restoration of the neural activity have given few encouraging results. The alternative that the ByAxon consortium proposes is disruptive, and consists on developing new systems and structures based on nanotechnology that could potentially recover the connectivity lost in a spinal cord injury. According to Dr. Teresa González (IMDEA Nanociencia): “We will focus in to recovering the sensory functions. We would like the signals from the limbs to reach the brain. This is very important because it has been already demonstrated that the therapies that focus in recovering the sensory functions are, on average, more successful than the ones focused only in recovering the motor function.”