Veterans Administration, scientists and engineers at the Advanced Platform Technology (APT) Center located at the Louis Stokes VA in Cleveland are developing emerging technologies for use by veterans with disabilities The research efforts include everything from smart electrodes to electronic bandages.
Researchers are testing electrodes implanted in the brain to see if they are able to pick up signals that can be changed into commands for computers or robotic limbs. Electrodes like this already exist, but they have limitations since the electrodes are made of stiff silicon and as a result, they don’t fit well in the watery environment of the brain.
The APT Center created a material that softens once inside the brain rendering it mechanically invisible as reported in the publication “Science” in 2007”. Today, APT Director of Research and Scientific Affairs, Christian Zorman, PhD, and others are working on incorporating the new material into a device that can record neural activity or stimulate nerves.
Zorman reports “If we can perfect the design, we hope to be able to mass produce the implant at a low cost. However, miniaturization is very important so that surgeons can implant many of the implants and not just a few”. A prototype electrode is in preclinical testing.
Another early-stage project involving the brain is a wireless system for recording brain waves. In some people with epilepsy, brain tumors, or brain injuries, neurologists are able to pinpoint the damage by placing a grid of electrodes on the brain and then reading the resulting waves. Researchers want to make it possible to record brainwave information wirelessly without exposing the brain or the need to run wires to provide continuous long term data on what is going on in the brain. It could also improve patient selection for surgery and surgical accuracy.
Electrodes are helpful but cumbersome when used for wound healing. For slow healing wounds, the standard of care involves applying low-intensity current to the area. This is inconvenient, since patients must receive treatment in a hospital and placing the electrodes on fragile skin can be difficult.
APT engineers are working on an electronic bandage. Their goal is to combine the electrical current with a bandage and make disposable. The bandage would apply current through the wound until the battery wore down and then at that time, the bandage would be thrown out and replaced.
The development of this bandage could possibly be tweaked into a wireless patch for pain control. Right now, Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS) is used to treat chronic pain, but portable units have electrodes and wires that keep the system and the patient homebound. If wireless technology is used, a patient could have mobility and the physician would be able to change the type and pattern of electrical stimulation with just a phone call.
Today full leg braces are designed to help paraplegics stand and walk in a straight line over a level surface. The center’s biomedical engineers are working with a robotics laboratory at Case Western Reserve University to develop a more dynamic brace.
The engineers are working on ankle, knee, and hip joints that can be locked and unlocked using a small wearable computer. The engineers are also working on hydraulics that can slowly release the knee joint, lock one hip, unlock the other hip, and flex the knee slowly. This enables stairs to become possible. The brace also uses electrical stimulation to excite paralyzed muscles so that movement is possible.
According to Rudi Kobetic, co-investigator, the brace is still too heavy and needs to be refined. APT researchers hope that the brace will be ready for technology transfer and eventually FDA approval, so that it will become an option for veterans and other individuals who are paralyzed due to spinal cord injury or disease.