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Carnegie Mellon researchers pioneer new 3D printing method for neural probes

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Researchers from Carnegie Mellon University have been granted $1.95 million from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to explore the use of a low-cost additive manufacturing process for creating a new type of high-density neural probe. The 3D printed probes, which will be developed using a new 3D printing process based on aerosol jet technology, will be used to record neurological data.

The nearly $2 million grant, awarded to researchers Rahul Panat and Eric Yttri, is part of the federal Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) project and seeks to drive the work being done by the research team. The NIH money will help the researchers to pioneer an “entirely new” manufacturing method for producing neural probes.

The new technology, which is based on 3D nanoparticle printing, is expected to increase accessibility to brain tissue as well as how many electrodes can be fit into a small area. The technique will also enable researchers to easily prototype new electrode configurations within just a few hours, creating unprecedented customization potential.

Panat, an associate professor of mechanical engineering and a member of Carnegie’s Next Manufacturing Center, said of the project: “This research proposes to use a novel additive manufacturing method that uses 3D nanoparticle printing to fabricate customizable, ultra-high density neural probes, such as brain-machine interfaces or BMIs. The recording densities of the probes will be an order of magnitude higher than that made by any current method.” 

Neural probes, which are essentially tiny implants for the brain, enable medical researchers to assess the function of the brain as well as to stimulate certain parts of the brain. Today, most neural probes consist of 2D and 3D arrays of silicon electrodes, which, while mostly effective, are delicate and costly. These two factors, along with the fact that they have low densities of electrodes and are not suitable for precision neuroprosthetics, have limited their application in medical research.

The new approach proposed by the Carnegie Mellon team could overcome these problems and present a solution that is affordable, reliable and high quality. In short, Panat and Yttri are developing a 3D printing technique capable of producing customizable neural probes which could “change the course of neuroscience research.”

“With fMRI we can see the whole brain, but the temporal and spatial resolution are not where we need them to be,” explained Yttri, an assistant professor of biological sciences. “Electrodes can give us millisecond, single neuron resolution, but even with the most recent advances you might only be able to get information from 300 or 400 neurons at a time. With my expertise in neuroscience and Rahul’s pioneering 3D printing technique based on aerosol jet technology, we decided to combine our interests to bridge this gap that exists between the two ways neuroscience is classically done.”

One of the first big milestones in the research project will be to produce the first entirely 3D printed microelectrode array, which will be more customized than any other electrode array in history.

Carnegie Mellon neural probes

“If you want an electrode, typically you go to a supplier who offers 10 options, and you have to make one of those options work for any experiment,” said Yttri. “By 3D printing the electrodes with our high throughput method, we can put the recording sites as close together or far away as we want. And the nature of the electrodes’ structure means they can be implanted in the brain much easier and with less damage than the current state of the art.” 

As the research advances, the team hopes its innovative technology will have applications in making precision medical devices, like brain-machine interfaces (BMIs) that can be customized to the patient’s brain structure and be used to develop treatments for neurodegenerative diseases.

“We are applying the newest advances in microelectronics manufacturing to neuroscience in order to realize the next generation of tools for the exploration of the brain,” concluded Panat. “This research will lead to a more precise 3D mapping of neural circuits and precision neuroprosthetic devices that can restore significantly more of patients’ previously lost functionality. The research will also lead to new avenues for the treatment of neurodegenerative diseases such as paraplegia and epilepsy.”

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Tess Boissonneault

Tess Boissonneault is a Montreal-based content writer and editor with five years of experience covering the additive manufacturing world. She has a particular interest in amplifying the voices of women working within the industry and is an avid follower of the ever-evolving AM sector. Tess holds a master's degree in Media Studies from the University of Amsterdam.

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