One of the expressions we use to describe our mission here at NTT Research is that we aim to “upgrade reality.” That’s an ambitious goal, and one that we cannot accomplish by ourselves. The joint research agreement between MEI Lab, which I direct, and the Technical University of Munich (TUM) is a good case in point.
Our focus at the MEI Lab is medical and health informatics. Medical electrodes [CS1] are one of the “realities” that we are aiming to upgrade. Conventional electronics tend to work against and at a distance from targeted organs or tissues. Rigid and planar electrode materials are not optimized for soft and curvilinear biological samples. For in vivo biological signals to be stable, with a high accuracy over a long period of time, what’s required is very small, flexible electrodes with high biocompatibility. To enable greater control and more functionality, we also believe in working with three-dimensional (3D) materials with self-assembly and reversible transformation capabilities.
Minuscule shape-morphing medical devices may sound futuristic. But that future is arriving. Pioneering work has been undertaken by outstanding scholars and researchers around the world, including John Rogers, a Northwestern University Professor who focuses on the characteristics of ‘soft’ materials; and Charles Lieber, a Harvard Professor known for his work in nanoscience and nanotechnology. In this joint research project with TUM, we are collaborating with Bernhard Wolfrum, Professor of Neuroelectronics in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and the Munich School of BioEngineering. Dr. Wolfrum is focused on bioelectronic technologies for life science and point-of-care applications.
One of Germany’s top technical universities, TUM has strengths in many relevant areas, including neuron growth control and electrophysiological measurement. Dr. Wolfrum, who heads up the Neuroelectronics Group at TUM, has developed electrochemical sensor arrays and interfaces to cellular networks and employed micro-fabrication techniques, advanced printing technologies, and micro-fluidic cell culture methods. His research goal is to establish neuroelectronic hybrids and systems for on-chip neuroscience and bioelectronic medicine.
Our work with Dr. Wolfrum and his university will begin in Q1 2020 and extend over several years. The project scope includes screening and optimizing functional materials, assembling 3D structures, and evaluating their biocompatibility. The first phase, expected to last three years, will focus on identifying the right materials, in particular, nano-/micro-scale conductive polymer thin films with high biocompatibility, conductivity, functionality and processability.
Along with our basic research at TUM, we plan to collaborate with medical institutes, European companies, and others with an eye toward practical applications. Those could include sensing and stimulation electrodes for the brain and heart, brain-machine interfaces, multi-array electrodes for neuronal analysis for in vitro or in situ experiments, and new concept materials for vasodilation. We look forward to sharing the results of our research with academic colleagues and also posting updates here from time to time.