It’s like something out of a science fiction magazine, but leave it to MIT to turn science fiction into science fact. A study published in the June 12th edition of PLoS ONE reveals a new glucose powered chip that literally will create an interface between brain and machine. The glucose “fuel cell” brings hope that in the future we will be able to help paralytics regain control of their limbs using neural prosthetics powered by this new technology.
Glucose is basically the sugar that can be found in our blood. It is the usable form of energy that our bodies use to power our muscles and our brain. The glucose powered fuel cells can be seen, pictured below, on a silicon wafer.
The new fuel cells strip electrons from glucose molecules to create a small electric current. Implantable electronics are nothing new. Consider the pace maker, for instance. Many heart patients are alive and well today due to the tiny electronic module that keeps their heart in perfect rhythm. Oddly enough, scientists in the 1970’s originally proved they could power a pacemaker using glucose but due to some inefficiencies with an enzyme necessary to run them, they eventually decided to use lithium ion batteries instead. The difference in this new technology is that it contains no biological components whatsoever. It can generate hundreds of microwatts which can be used to power “ultra-low-power” implants.
Location, Location, Location
One of the groundbreaking aspects of this new research is not only that the fuel cells are powered by glucose, but also its placement in the body. Before this study, any research done using glucose fuel cells relied on blood or tissue fluid. This research suggested using cerebrospinal fluid which basically is a sugar filled barrier that surrounds the brain. One reason is that this fluid basically contains no cells that would stimulate an immune response. The other reason is that it is so rich in glucose. Due to the relatively small amount of glucose needed to power these fuel cells, no adverse affects are expected to occur in the brain.
Research like this is very encouraging especially for those who have lost use of their limbs due to paralysis. However, it may be a few years before we see this research being used in practical medical setting. If you would like more information, you can read the MIT press release http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/2012/glucose-fuel-cell-0612.html, or for a more technical experience you can find the published study at this link http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0038436.