Doctors Use Sugar to Power New Brain Implants

1 | By Michael A. Robinson

Sugar gets a bad rap.

It’s just a simple carbohydrate that dissolves easily in water. But in human consumption, that means it hits the blood stream quickly and can spike blood-sugar levels to dangerous heights.

You could forgive doctors for declaring a “war” on sugar. After all, billions of people around the world consume more of this sweetener than they should almost every day. Research reveals that sugar abuse is a major factor behind America’s growing epidemic of obesity. Not only that, but many experts believe this tiny molecule is powering an explosion in cases of diabetes, too.

Some politicians have even jumped on the anti-sugar bandwagon. In the most recent case, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg caused a firestorm of protest when he said he wants a city-wide ban on sugary drinks bigger than 16 ounces.

But the “battle of the bulge” here in the U.S. misses a key fact about sugar…

It could become a major fuel driving the biotech revolution.

Take the case of the new brain implant that runs on glucose, a form of sugar that is the key source of energy for the human body. An MIT research team recently said these new neural devices could help paralyzed patients move their arms and legs once again.

And all without the need for batteries.

This alone is a major breakthrough. Fact is, no matter what fuel they use – lithium ion or lead acid – sooner or later, conventional batteries run out of juice.

That’s a big challenge keeping the use of brain chips at bay.

Neural implants can capture thought signals and turn them into real movements, so there’s great potential use for therapeutic purposes. Some patients are receiving them today. Yet they face the prospect of needing to have the chip replaced in as little as a few months. Moreover, doctors worry about what would happen to their patients should one of these devices start to leak the chemicals that power them.

Enter MIT’s sugar-driven implants. To provide the current that runs the chips, team members created a new type of fuel cell, a device that converts chemical energy into electricity.

This is just sheer genius. The fuel cellstrips electrons from glucose molecules to create a small electric current that powers the implant.

And it gets better…

The team made the fuel cell on a silicon chip, like what you’d find in your computer or smart phone. This means doctors can combine the fuel source with other circuits they would need to make a single, fully functioning brain implant.

It was back in the 1970s that doctors first used glucose fuel cells in medical devices. At the time, they tried to power pacemakers, like those for heart patients. But it turns out those early fuel cells used an enzyme that just wouldn’t work well inside the body over the long haul. So they switched to lithium ion as a power source.

Now, after a steady stream of advances, they have come full circle.

Of course, there’s a unique new twist. It’s the use of platinum, a precious metal the body can handle in small doses without major side effects.

Here’s how it works.

A platinum catalyst strips electrons from the glucose. This process mimics the activity of enzymes that break down glucose to make a molecule that provides energy to human cells.

Incredibly, team members believe the glucose fuel cells could get all the sugar they need inside the brain itself. It’s found in a substance known as cerebrospinal fluid that bathes the brain and keeps it from banging into the skull.

I predict these or similar devices will play a vital role in the biotech revolution in the near future. They could help brain-damaged patients and stroke victims walk again or operate computers with their minds.

Benjamin Rapoport, the study’s lead author, agrees. This is what he had to say about the MIT team’s results: “It will be a few more years into the future before you see people with spinal-cord injuries receive such implantable systems in the context of standard medical care. But those are the sorts of devices you could envision powering from a glucose-based fuel cell.”

Thus, I believe that if these chips don’t make it make it to market, some other neural breakthrough will.

That’s the great thing about the Era of Radical Change. There’s no end of innovations that will improve our lives and help keep America the world’s technical leader.


One Response to Doctors Use Sugar to Power New Brain Implants

  1. Richard W Carpenter says:

    It won’t be long before you could get an implant for healthy people that would augment our mental or physical abilities!…If it already hasn’t been done.

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