Australian researchers have tested a tiny device that electrically stimulates the brain, and could be used to treat a variety of conditions.

A team at the University of Melbourne has shown for the first time that electrical stimulation can be delivered into the brain from a 4mm diameter ‘Stentrode’ permanently implanted inside a blood vessel.

This technology opens the door for a range of potential treatments that have traditionally required open brain surgery, including deep brain stimulation for Parkinson’s disease and epilepsy.

Deep brain stimulation requires open brain surgery with an electrode implanted via burr hole surgery, where one or more holes are drilled in the skull so the electrodes can penetrate the brain.

The Stentrode can place electrodes in the brain via blood vessels through a vein in the neck.

In their latest tests, researchers implanted a Stentrode into blood vessels in sheep and achieved localised stimulation of brain tissue, all without open-brain surgery. The devices were implanted into blood vessels next to motor areas of the brain.

“Stimulation-induced responses of the facial muscles and limbs were observed, and were comparable to those obtained with electrodes implanted following invasive surgery,” the researchers wrote.

“A minimally invasive endovascular surgical approach utilising a stent-electrode array is an encouraging safe and efficacious way to stimulate focal regions of brain.

“While additional data is required to validate chronic safety and efficacy of the Stentrode, our previous research, and literature on the success of commercially available cranial stents and vascular lead wires supports our hypothesis that a Stentrode may be a suitable alternative to invasive neural implants.”

In an upcoming clinical trial, a Stentrode will receive and interpret neural signals and enable a person with Motor Neurone Disease to control communication software.

Eventually it is hoped this technology will be used to help all people suffering from paralysis to control computers, wheelchairs and exoskeletons.

“From within a blood vessel in the head, the Stentrode can pick up brain signals when people think about moving,” lead researcher Dr Nick Opie said.

“These can be converted into commands that enable direct-brain control of computers, vehicles or prosthetic limbs. With stimulation, sensory feedback is possible, and people may be able to feel what they are touching.”