Nanofibres can ease the pain of Parkinson’s disease (Day 331)

In the UK this week, it is Parkinson’s Awareness Week. The aim is to raise awareness of the disease by doing a good deed and tweeting about it using #upyourfriendly.

We can all get involved; just by being nice to the people we meet. You can make new friends and maybe someone’s life a little easier without even knowing it. Check out the campaign to learn more.

Pair of carbon nanotube fibres

Photo credit | Rice University
Pair of carbon nanotube fibres

With this strategy in mind, I thought I’d raise awareness of the work of some chemical engineers who are definitely ‘up-ing their friendly’ by working behind the scenes to help combat the symptoms of this debilitating disease.

Researchers at Rice University in Texas, US, have developed flexible carbon nanotube fibres, that may provide an effective way of communicating directly with the brain.

Parkinson’s disease affects one in every 500 people. That’s an estimated 127,000 people in the UK – or around 8.5 million globally.

It is a progressive neurological condition that affects nerve cells in the brain, causing them to die. This results in lower dopamine levels in the body with serious implications for mobility and emotional behaviour.

Currently there is no cure for Parkinson’s disease, but treatments are available to relieve the symptoms, which include stiffness, tremors and slowness of movement. One such treatment is deep brain stimulation (DBS).

DBS involves implanting electrodes into one of three areas of the brain. High frequency stimulation is sent to the target areas, altering the electrical signals in the brain that are associated with the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease.

This treatment can be uncomfortable for the patient, because the electrodes and the leads connecting them are thick and inflexible. This can cause inflammation and scarring.

New research from the team at Rice University has shown that nanofibres are ideal candidates for small, safe electrodes that interact with the brain’s neuronal system. Here is an opportunity to replace the much larger electrodes currently used in DBS treatment.

Their research paper appeared online last month in the Journal ACSNano under the title; ‘Neural Stimulation and Recording with Bidirectional, Soft Carbon Nanotube Fiber Microelectrodes‘.

Matteo Pasquali, a Professor in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at Rice University has produced fibres comprising millions of long nanotubes measuring only a few nanometres in width.

It can be difficult to imagine just how small that is, but to put it into context; once millions of these nanotubes are spun together, they form a thread like fibre that’s about a quarter the width of a human hair.

Watch how they’re made in this YouTube video:

This work was originally aimed at aerospace applications, where strength, weight and conductivity are vital. But as Matteo explains, opportunity knocked for other sectors, “We developed these fibres as high-strength, high-conductivity materials. Yet, once we had them in our hand, we realised that they had an unexpected property: They are really soft, much like a thread of silk.

“Their unique combination of strength, conductivity and softness makes them ideal for interfacing with the electrical function of the human body.”

The consistency of our brain tissue is very soft and spongy. Because of this, it doesn’t interact well with stiff metal electrodes, so a thin silk-like substitute could be extremely beneficial for patients undergoing DBS.

Post doctoral researcher and lead author of the study, Flavia Vitale, preparing carbon nanotube fibres for testing

Photo Credit | Rice University
Post doctoral researcher and lead author of the study, Flavia Vitale, preparing carbon nanotube fibres for testing

The technology used in the carbon nanotube fibres is more advanced than in conventional devices. Traditional electrodes only send electrical signals to the brain alleviating the tremors that afflict someone suffering from Parkinson’s disease.

“But our technology enables the ability to record while stimulating,” Flavia Vitale, post doctoral researcher and lead author of the study explained.

“Current electrodes can only stimulate tissue. They’re too big to detect any spiking activity, so basically the clinical devices send continuous pulses regardless of the response of the brain.”

The development of a more responsive ‘two-way’ electrode may permit variation of the brain stimulation in real time.

If the research proceeds as planned, there is a good deal of optimism for further advances including the restoration of sensory or motor functions for other neurological disorders, including dystonia and depression.

Congratulations to all involved in this work.


Whilst chemical engineers and other scientists are working behind the scenes to develop the latest technology, why not grab the opportunity presented by Parkinson’s Awareness Week and make someone’s day that little bit brighter #upyourfriendly