New graphene brain implant to treat neurological disorders

The idea of implanting computer chips into human brains has a long history in science fiction. A quick search of the Internet Movie Database reveals that there are at least 55 movies and television shows featuring brain implants.

Now, however, chip implants in the brain are set to join a growing list of technology that has gone from science fiction to science fact and perhaps within our decade, bring revolutionary solutions to meet a growing medical need. Spanish start-up INBRAIN, is about to start human trials of an implantable brain chip made of graphene, a highly conductive revolutionary material that’s 200 times stronger than steel and only one atom thick.

“The great advantage of graphene is that it allows us to make a minimally invasive, highly biocompatible on-chip system that has incredible sensitivity and neural signal resolution with low power requirements,” says Carolina Aguilar, INBRAIN’s chief executive.   

While other companies, including Elon Musk’s Neuralink, are also working on brain implants, INBRAIN’s use of graphene sets it apart and has helped it secure “breakthrough device designation” from US medical treatments regulator, the Food and Drug Administration. The designation paves the way for an expedited approval process and is reserved for new devices that represent a breakthrough or offer a reasonable proof of significant advantages over existing alternatives.

Graphene, a wonder material

Graphene is essentially a single layer of carbon atoms arranged in a hexagonal lattice structure. One million times thinner than the width of human hair, it is a two-dimensional material with exceptional mechanical, electrical, and thermal properties. Optically transparent yet dense enough to be impermeable to gasses and exceptionally strong, it is a miracle material with great potential in a number of fields, including electronics, energy storage, and biomedicine.

It was first isolated by chance, when professors Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov at the University of Manchester dug into their bin to find some used adhesive tape that had been used to clean graphite for a microscope sample. Their paper, “Electric field effect in atomically thin carbon films,” earned them the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2010. Sir Kostya Novoselov is today an advisor to INBRAIN

INBRAIN’s “system on a chip” contains skin-like neural interfaces made of graphene and a wireless rechargeable neural processor that, together with advanced machine-learning software, enables neural signals in the brain to be mapped,  decoded and modulated. The system can identify irregular electrical signals in the brain, which in the case of Parkinson’s disease cause uncontrollable shaking, ridigity or postural imbalance. It then emits electrical pulses to modulate these and thereby control symptoms in real time. In the future the system will also be able to decode thought to speech in patients with post stroke aphasia or other paralysing disorders.

  • For more examples of the EIB’s support for cutting edge healthcare read more

Huge potential

“The potential is huge,” says Valeria Iansante, a life science specialist at the European Investment Bank, which this year signed a €20 million venture debt loan to INBRAIN, to back up potential future cash needs on top of INBRAIN’s successful venture capital fundraising.

Venture debt is a loan to an early-stage company that provides liquidity between equity funding rounds. It helps finance the growth of young companies without affecting their valuation or diluting the ownership of the founders and early shareholders.

  • To learn more about venture debt, read more

“What the company is trying to achieve in the field of brain computer interfacing and neuromodulation is quite a breakthrough,” says Iansante. “The potential impact of this technology for the treatment of neurological disorders like Parkinson’s – and also potentially epilepsy, depression or even speech impairment – is remarkable. For this reason, we are proud to offer our support to this company."

The European Investment Bank is not alone in recognising the potential of INBRAIN’s technology. Europe’s oldest pharmaceutical company, German healthcare and technology group Merck KGaA, based in Darmstadt, Germany signed a deal with the company in 2021 to cooperate on the development of next-generation bioelectronic vagus nerve therapies to treat chronic diseases, such as inflammatory disorders. 

Barcelona-based INBRAIN, is a European success story for publicly funded research and Barcelona’s high-tech scene. The company was founded in 2020 when it was spun out of the Catalan Institute of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology - ICN2, with a research programme that was funded by the European Union’s Graphene Flagship, a €1 billion 10-year research programme launched in 2013 to promote and coordinate graphene research across the European Union.

“We’ve always felt the support of the European Union,” says Aguilar, the chief executive. “It’s important that the EU thinks about innovation with the highest ambition and how to support ventures like ours. The EIB plays an important role in the European start-up ecosystem, and for us it is a great EU mechanism to get additional levers for funding with start-up friendly conditions.”