As part of our series exploring the edges of scientific research, we caught up with Gaëlle Offranc Piret, a World Economic Forum Young Scientist at the French Institute of Health and Medical Research, to find out about her work developing flexible, thin and nanostructured brain implants for therapeutic applications such as restoring function for disabled people.
What is the big problem you're trying to solve?
How our brain works is still full of mystery and in the meantime it is very fragile and susceptible to diseases or accidents; treatments need to be developed while fundamental aspects have to be studied like the communication between different brain areas, the role of each neuron, how our neurons learn and use brain plasticity to complete new tasks.
What is the big idea you're trying to use to solve it?
The idea is that we have to record a great number of neurons simultaneously and associate their electrical signals to operations that we do, so I am working on the fabrication of a mimetic implant with very tiny electrodes that will be able to record these signals while not triggering too much immune reaction.
How would you explain that to a five-year-old?
I am fabricating a lot of tiny electrical wires that will allow us to measure the signals we have inside the brain. This will allow us to find treatments for people with brain diseases.
What has been the most challenging part of the journey?
To design an implant that is mimetic of the brain, but that answer to surgical and clinical requirements. This is still challenging, so this is a very long journey. Implants could allow our neurons to control different machines such as robots, but this has to remain under medical purposes only since an implant surgery always has risks. Controlling robots using non-invasive brain interface is also possible but is not yet very effective.