Updated: October 14, 2020 06:26 PM
Created: October 14, 2020 05:32 PM
A first-of-its-kind brain chip that would be used to treat severe mental disorders is being developed in the Twin Cities.
A team at the University of Minnesota Medical School recently received a $6.6 million grant from the National Institute of Mental Health to create, build and test a brain implant.
"It's going to be a chip, like a millimeter on each side, maybe even less, but it is going to be the heart of this new technology," said Dr. Alik Widge, an assistant professor in the medical school’s psychiatry department, who is the principal investigator on the project. "This one little piece is what nobody's ever tried to do."
Dr. Widge said people with severe mental health disorders often have brain waves that are out of sync. He believes the key to fixing the problem is getting the circuit reconnected.
"The technology we're trying to build can actually watch and sense brain activity moment to moment, millisecond to millisecond. That one critical tiny chip that can read the brain signals and interpret and say, now is the moment when you need to deliver that single little nudge of stimulation to get that network back into its healthy state," Dr. Widge explained.
Dr. Widge says the device would likely be implanted near a person's collarbone, with wires underneath the skin leading up to electrodes in the skull.
He said the electrodes would deliver "gentle, targeted stimulation" to specific parts of the brain.
"What we've discovered is there are ways to restore those more natural healthy patterns of communication if you can get in there, up close next to those firing brain cells and slightly adjust their electrical activity," Dr. Widge said. "This would very much be the first device to exploit this new mechanism of action, this new idea of reconnecting and altering brain circuits and their communication."
Dr. Widge said he hopes it will give those who suffer from severe mental health disorders new hope.
"Every week in our treatment-resistant disorders clinic, I've got folks coming to me that say, 'Hey, here's the laundry list of 20, 30 medications I've tried, here's the therapy programs I've done and I've still got this and it's still killing me slowly, minute by minute,'" Dr. Widge said. "For people who have tried medications, have tried talk therapy, have tried residential programs, and even if some stuff helps, it never really sticks, so they're still battling their disease every day."
He anticipates the new device would deliver a thousand times less energy to the brain than existing treatments.
He said the University of Minnesota Medical School is uniquely poised to develop the new device.
"This is absolutely an 'only in Minnesota' story," Dr. Widge said. "Our whole region is like Silicon Valley for making medical devices. It's highly interdisciplinary, really cutting edge work that people don't realize you can only do in a place like this, that gives the disciplines the space to come together."
Dr. Widge believes his team will be able to begin clinical pilot programs in humans in about five years.
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