Page last updated at 06:43 GMT, Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Micro needles aid bionic advances

Diagram of where the sensor could be implanted onto the brain
A diagram of where the sensor could be implanted onto the brain

Engineers in Wales have helped to develop micro technology which could lead to a bionic man becoming reality.

It is hoped their micro-needle array sensors, which are around the size of a matchstick head, will help amputees move artificial limbs with brain power.

The sensors, which were developed and manufactured by Cardiff University firm MicroBridge Services, comprise of 100 needles just thicker than a human hair.

They sit on the brain and send out nerve impulses to prosthetics.

MicroBridge Services was asked by researchers at Utah university in the United States to develop the micro-needle array sensors in tungsten carbide, an extremely hard material which conducts electricity.

The American team has been leading research in the area and has already been successful in developing an implant which can be used to manipulate computers and prosthetic appendages.

They need the needles, each of which can be up to several millimetres long, to penetrate into the brain to such a depth that they pick up electrical brain activity.

The challenge for us now is to make the needles smaller so that we can pack more onto a sensor
Dr Robert Hoyle, MicroBridge Services

The electrical signals that are detected are amplified and then transmitted and interpreted to produce movements in the prosthetic limbs.

Patients using the implants must learn how to generate the correct mental activity to get responses from the system, but tests have already shown encouraging results, says Dr Robert Hoyle, from MicroBridge Services.

"The researchers in Utah have had patients controlling simple mechanical operations like gripping objects with the prosthetic limbs or operating a mouse," said Dr Hoyle.

"They came to us because we can make these needles in tungsten carbide which is very strong and robust but extremely difficult to cut to such a small size.

"The more needles you can get on a sensor in the smallest possible area, the better control a patient will get over his or her prosthetic limb.

Micro-needle array sensor
The micro-needle array sensor pictured under a microscope

"The challenge for us now is to make the needles smaller so that we can pack more onto a sensor."

Dr Hoyle said the researchers' long term goal was to develop a sensor which would sit on the spinal column of someone who had broken their neck or back.

They could then learn how to move their limbs again.

"There is a lot of research and testing that needs to be done before this becomes a reality," said Dr Hoyle.

"The research that goes on here is never ending."

MicroBridge Services was formed to exploit the commercial potential of the research into micro and nano engineering undertaken at Cardiff university.

Already their expertise has been used in the manufacture of tiny components for the instruments used in keyhole surgery.

The firm is part of the XGEN consortium, a Welsh Assembly Government initiative which has united three of Wales' leading micro engineering organisations.

All three members are commercialising micro nano technology and each are funded by the assembly government and the Technology Strategy Board.

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