Dec 23, 2008

Is NanoTechnology the Answer to Alzheimer's?

In a previous life I worked on Wall Street. In the early 1990s when I worked on the Myriad Genetics deal genetic testing was a "new thing".  At the time, there were major reservations about the viability and usefullness of the science. It was not understood and as a result many viewed it as "hogwash". Myriad's idea of testing women for predisposition to breast cancer was highly controversial at the time. There were reservations about the accuracy of the test and issues surrounding the potential psychological damage of 'knowing". Sound familiar?

Today I ran across a press release that describes a potential nanotechnology that could result in the development of "smart" brain materials. While this is only an early step forward, development of these kinds of nano-materials could result in ways to ways to “bypass” faulty brain wiring and perhaps result in a cure for Alzheimer's.

I know this sounds like "whacky science". However, Myriad was a "whacky science" back in 1994 and even though 14 years sounds like a long time ago it really isn't--is it?
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New"smart" materials for the brain

Research done by scientists in Italy and Switzerland has shown that carbon nanotubes may be the ideal “smart” brain material. Their results, published December 21 in the advance online edition of the journal Nature Nanotechnology, are a promising step forward in the search to find ways to “bypass” faulty brain wiring.
The research shows that carbon nanotubes, which, like neurons, are highly electrically conductive, form extremely tight contacts with neuronal cell membranes. Unlike the metal electrodes that are currently used in research and clinical applications, the nanotubes can create shortcuts between the distal and proximal compartments of the neuron, resulting in enhanced neuronal excitability.

The study was conducted in the Laboratory of Neural Microcircuitry at EPFL in Switzerland and led by Michele Giugliano (now an assistant professor at the University of Antwerp), University of Trieste professor Laura Ballerini and Maurizio Prato, also from the University of Trieste. “This result is extremely relevant for the emerging field of neuro-engineering and neuroprosthetics,” explains Giugliano, who hypothesizes that the nanotubes could be used as a new building block of novel “electrical bypass” systems for treating traumatic injury of the central nervous system. Carbon nano-electrodes could also be used to replace metal parts in clinical applications such as deep brain stimulation for the treatment of Parkinson’s disease or severe depression. And they show promise as a whole new class of “smart” materials for use in a wide range of potential neuroprosthetic applications.

Henry Markram, head of the Laboratory of Neural Microcircuitry and an author on the paper, adds: “There are three fundamental obstacles to developing reliable neuroprosthetics: 1) stable interfacing of electromechanical devices with neural tissue, 2) understanding how to stimulate the neural tissue, and 3) understanding what signals to record from the neurons in order for the device to make an automatic and appropriate decision to stimulate. The new carbon nanotube-based interface technology discovered together with state of the art simulations of brain-machine interfaces is the key to developing all types of neuroprosthetics -- sight, sound, smell, motion, vetoing epileptic attacks, spinal bypasses, as well as repairing and even enhancing cognitive functions.”

Contact information:

Michele Giugliano, Department of Biomedical Sciences, University of Antwerp, tel +32 3 820 26 16, fax +32 3 820 26 69, e-mail:

Laura Ballerini, MD, Life Sciences Department, Center for Neuroscience B.R.A.I.N. University of Trieste, tel +39 040 558 2411 (or 2730), fax +39 040 567862, e-mail:

Henry Markram, professor, EPFL Laboratory of Neural Microcircuitry, tel +41 21 691 9569, e-mail: