Zurich – Researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich are working on new therapies for brain disorders ranging from depression and schizophrenia to autism. Their vision is to treat patients in a targeted way as they sleep, without any pills.

Deep brain stimulation has already been hugely successful in the treatment of Parkinson’s disease. However, research experimentation with brain stimulation as a means of treating brain disorders such as depression, schizophrenia and autism is still in its infancy, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH) reports in a press release. Pills are still the most common way to treat brain disorders. According to ETH researcher Mehmet Fatih Yanik, this is a relatively undirected approach. In many cases, the target molecules are located throughout the entire brain or even in other parts of the body – not just in the specific area of brain on which the drug is meant to act. Yanik says this is “about as effective as trying to repair a supercomputer with a hammer”.

He is therefore working with his colleagues to develop new therapies that act more specifically. One vision is to treat patients in a targeted way as they sleep. This involves laying their head on a smart pillow containing sensors that communicate wirelessly with microchips implanted in the patient’s cerebral cortex. As they sleep, thousands of tiny embedded electrodes transmit high-resolution information on the activity of individual nerve cells to the chips’ processing units. These, in turn, calculate whether the brain circuits are functioning normally or if therapeutic intervention is required. In the latter case, an implant connected to the bloodstream releases microparticles containing active agents. The microchips activate further modules that generate ultrasonic waves and direct them to a specific point in the brain. The particles cluster together briefly at that point and then release the active agents, which Yanik says will enable extremely targeted therapies.

Yanik recently made a successful application to obtain EU funding for the project, though admits he is still decades away from his vision becoming a reality.

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