'Cyborg' technology just took a step closer to reality

‘Cyborg’ technology and artificial intelligence could be merged with human tissue so that electronics can be fitted into the body – just like in sci-fi films such as RoboCop.

Scientists have found a way to attach devices inside a human that could be used to monitor tumours or replace damaged areas, researchers said.

Experts said that connecting electronics directly to human tissues in the body is a huge challenge.

Now, a team of scientists say new coatings for components could help them more easily fit futuristic AI devices into the body and brain.

Traditional microelectronic materials, such as silicon, gold, stainless steel and iridium used in this type of technology causes scarring when implanted.

For applications inserted into muscle or brain tissue, electrical signals need to flow for them to operate properly, but scars interrupt this activity..

But the researchers concluded that a coating could help prevent the devices from causing such damage.

Professor David Martin, from the University of Delaware who led the study, said: ‘We got the idea for this project because we were trying to interface rigid, inorganic microelectrodes with the brain, but brains are made out of organic, salty, live materials.

‘It wasn’t working well, so we thought there must be a better way.

‘We started looking at organic electronic materials like conjugated polymers that were being used in non-biological devices.

‘We found a chemically stable example that was sold commercially as an anti-static coating for electronic displays.’

After testing, the researchers found that the polymer – a material consisting of very large molecules – had the properties necessary for interfacing hardware and human tissue.

Prof Martin added: ‘These conjugated polymers are electrically active, but they are also ionically active [charged].

‘Counter ions give them the charge they need so when they are in operation, both electrons and ions are moving around.’

The polymer, known as poly(3,4-ethylenedioxythiophene) or PEDOT, dramatically improved the performance of medical implants by lowering their impedance two to three orders of magnitude, thus increasing signal quality and battery lifetime in patients, the researchers said.

Prof Martin has since determined how to specialise the polymer, putting different functional groups on PEDOT.

Adding a carboxylic acid, aldehyde – a compound used in perfume – or maleimide substitute to the ethylenedioxythiophene (EDOT) monomer gave the researchers the versatility to create polymers with a variety of functions.

A monomer is a molecule that forms the basic unit for polymers, which are the building blocks of proteins.

Mixing unsubstituted monomers with the maleimide-substituted version results in a material with many locations where the researchers could attach peptides, antibodies or DNA.

He said: ‘The maleimide is particularly powerful because we can do click chemistry substitutions to make functional polymers and biopolymers.

‘Name your favourite biomolecule, and you can in principle make a PEDOT film that has whatever biofunctional group you might be interested in.’

Most recently, Prof Martin’s group created a PEDOT film with an antibody for vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) attached.

VEGF stimulates blood vessel growth after injury, and tumours hijack this protein to increase their blood supply.

The polymer that the team developed could act as a sensor to detect over-expression of VEGF and thus early stages of disease, among other potential applications.

Other polymers have neurotransmitters on them and these films could help sense or treat brain or nervous system disorders.

So far, the team has made a polymer with dopamine, which plays a role in addictive behaviours.

Prof Martin says these biological-synthetic hybrid materials might someday be useful in merging artificial intelligence with the human brain.

Ultimately, Prof Martin said his dream is to be able to tailor how these materials deposit on a surface and then to put them in tissue in a living organism.

He added: ‘The ability to do the polymerisation in a controlled way inside a living organism would be fascinating.’

The research findings were presented today (Mon) at the American Chemical Society (ACS) Fall 2020 Virtual Meeting & Expo.

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