Science Weekly: First bionic implant being developed to fight mental illness

Scientists at the University of Wollongong in Australia have developed an innovative brain implant to help treat people who suffer from mental illnesses. Professor Xu-Feng Huang is leading researchers at the Illawarra Health and Medical Research Institute at the university on the $676,000 project that is expected to last three years.

The device will work similarly to the cochlear implant (a surgically implanted device that provides a sense of sound to someone who is deaf or severely hard of hearing). Electrodes will be implanted into the frontal area of the brain, which will electrically stimulate and provide growth factors to help improve brain function in patients suffering from illnesses such as schizophrenia.

Schizophrenia affects nearly 1 percent of the world’s population. Structural anomalies in the brain that stop neurons from communicating normally are the causes of schizophrenia. Genetics and environmental factors may also play a role in these anomalies. The approximate total of health care-related costs in association with schizophrenia in the United States alone is $22 billion.

Society largely relies on antipsychotics to treat schizophrenia, but they sometimes have debilitating side effects, and they can’t address its effects on cognitive functions and communication. The hope is to use the device to help patients function in ways medication cannot help them.