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Deflecting Damage: Flexible Electronics Aid Brain Injury Research

Flexible electronic membranes may overcome a longstanding dilemma faced by brain researchers: How to replicate injuries in the lab without destroying// the electrodes that monitor how brain cells respond to physical trauma.

Developed by a team of engineers at Princeton University, Columbia University and the University of Cambridge, the membranes feature microelectrodes that are able to withstand the sudden stretching that is used to simulate severe head trauma. The systems could allow far more nuanced studies of brain injury than previously possible and may lead to better treatments in the minutes and hours immediately following the injury. The work also has implications for other areas of medicine, including next-generation prosthetics, as well as myriad industry and military applications.

“This is an immediate application of the electronics of the future,” said Sigurd Wagner, a Princeton professor of electrical engineering. Wagner and former Princeton postdoctoral researcher Stephanie Lacour are part of a National Institutes of Health-funded project to develop flexible arrays of microelectrodes for brain research. Led by Barclay Morrison III, an assistant biomedical engineering professor at Columbia, members of the team will present their work at the April 9-13 conference of the Materials Research Society in San Francisco.

Existing techniques to study traumatic brain injury have been limited because it is almost impossible to insert an electrode into a cell to obtain a recording, remove the probe, injure the cell, and then reinsert the probe into the same cell, Morrison said. Because of this limitation, researchers rely on other surrogate markers of injury, such as cell death.

“In terms of traumatic brain injury, there can be a lot of functional damage to the brain in other ways than just killing a cell,” Morrison said. “Neurons can still be alive, but not properly firing,” which leads to problems ranging from comas to
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