This New Material Can Reconnect Severed Nerves, Scientists Say

For years, researchers have recognized the therapeutic potential of magnetoelectric materials to stimulate neural tissue for treating neurological disorders and nerve damage. However, a major obstacle has been the neurons’ inability to respond effectively to the resulting electric signals. Now, a team led by Rice University neuroengineer Jacob Robinson has developed a groundbreaking magnetoelectric material that not only addresses this challenge but also performs magnetic-to-electric conversion 120 times faster than previous materials.

The newly developed magnetoelectric material has the potential to revolutionize neurostimulation treatments. Unlike the conventional approach of implanting neurostimulation devices, tiny amounts of this material can be injected directly at the desired site. This breakthrough paves the way for a host of innovative applications in computing, sensing, electronics, and more.

This unique material consists of a piezoelectric layer of lead zirconium titanate sandwiched between two magnetorestrictive layers of metallic glass alloys (Metglas). When exposed to a magnetic field, the magnetorestrictive element vibrates and changes its shape, which, in turn, generates electricity through the piezoelectric material.

The key challenge was to engineer a material that could produce electric signals suitable for neuron response. The solution was to create a nonlinear relationship between the electric and magnetic fields, which was achieved by layering platinum, hafnium oxide, and zinc oxide on top of the original magnetoelectric film. This innovative approach reduced the device’s size, making it potentially injectable for future applications.

As a proof of concept, the researchers successfully used this material to stimulate peripheral nerves in rats and demonstrated its potential for neuroprosthetics by restoring function in a severed nerve. The material’s versatility also extends to sensing and memory applications in electronics.

Jacob Robinson, the lead researcher, finds it exciting that they can now design devices and systems using materials that have never existed before. He envisions numerous applications beyond the realm of bioelectronics, as this breakthrough in magnetoelectric materials has the potential to reshape various technological fields.

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