Aug 19, 2019 | Updated: 03:06 PM EDT

Early Signs of Neurological Disease Made Possible Via a New Quantum Material

Apr 12, 2019 08:14 AM EDT

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Quantum Biosensor (IMAGE)
(Photo : Purdue University image/Hai-Tian Zhang) The black rectangle beneath these gold rungs is a new quantum material capable of "listening" to the brain by grabbing atoms, which the brain naturally uses to communicate.

Purdue University and Argonne National Laboratory researchers have designed a new material that could detect early signs of neurological diseases.

Ionic currents help the brain perform a particular reaction such as sending a signal to pump the heart. The concentration of a molecule is determined by detecting ions that serves as an indicator of the health of the brain.

Their findings were published in Nature Communications. "Researchers demonstrate the ability of a quantum material to automatically receive hydrogen when placed beneath an animal model's brain slice. Quantum means that the material has electronic properties that both can't be explained by classical physics, and that gives it a unique edge over other materials used in electronics, such as silicon," 

This quantum material involves strong, "correlated" electrons that make the material extra tunable and extra sensitive.

"The goal is to bridge the gap between how electronics think, which is via electrons, and how the brain thinks, which is via ions. This material helped us find a potential bridge," said Hai-Tian Zhang, a Gilbreth postdoctoral fellow in Purdue's College of Engineering and first author on the paper.

The researches further explained the potential of the material to "download" the brain.

"Imagine putting an electronic device in the brain, so that when natural brain functions start deteriorating, a person could still retrieve memories from that device," said Shriram Ramanathan, a Purdue professor of materials engineering whose lab specializes in developing brain-inspired technology.

"We can confidently say that this material is a potential pathway to building a computing device that would store and transfer memories," he said.

Glucose and dopamine were tested on this material. The former is an important sugar that provides for energy production while the latter controls memory, emotional responses, and movement.

The brain naturally has low dopamine amounts and has even lower levels for patients that are affected by Parkinson's disease. It is challenging to detect this chemical. Thus, early detection would mean significant treatment of the disease.

"This quantum material is about nine times more sensitive to dopamine than methods that we use currently in animal models," said Alexander Chubykin, an assistant professor of biological sciences in the Purdue Institute for Integrative Neuroscience, based in Discovery Park.

The sensitivity of the quantum material is influenced by the strong interactions between "correlated electrons." The results of their study showed that hydrogen is spontaneously obtained from the glucose via an enzyme when the material is made in contact with the glucose molecules. This was also similar to dopamine.

Experiments were simulated that showed the strong affinity to hydrogen that permits extraction of the atom without any power source.

"The fact that we didn't provide power to the material for it to take in hydrogen means that it could bring very low-power electronics with high sensitivity," Ramanathan said. "This could be helpful for probing unexplored environments, as well."

Moreover, the material can also detect other molecules other than glucose and dopamine. The next goal of the researchers is to innovate an approach for the material to communicate to the brain.

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