Rice University Charges Into the Future with Magnetics and Bioimplants

May 26, 2021 by Adrian Gibbons

Rice University is tackling bioimplants by using magnetics. With DARPA's support on two out of three projects, what could the future of bioimplants look like?

Advances in self-generating drug delivery systems, brain-to-brain communication, and injury mitigation technologies are just some of the newest research coming down the pipeline from Rice University

Several research projects funded by the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency's (DARPA) N3 program might herald a future of highly advanced human-machine interfacing that expands the capabilities of soldiers and first responders. 


An example of one type of technology DARPA's N3 program is investing in.

An example of one type of technology DARPA's N3 program is investing in. Image used courtesy of DARPA


This article will first overview the DARPA program and the basics of these three programs. Then, a look at the common electronics technologies that are being used in biotechnology at Rice University.


DARPA’s N3 Program Funds Innovation

N3 is the ‘Next Generation Non-surgical Neurotechnology’ program funded by DARPA. Its principal objective is the development of advanced communication technology which does not require invasive surgeries to implement. 

Although intended for soldiers in the field and the operation of electronic weapons via neural interfaces, this technology could also have potential applications for first responders such as firefighters and police.


Rice University Research Roundup

Three recent research trends from Rice University, the first two funded by DARPA, offer insight into electronics trends in biotechnology.

To get an overview of what Rice University researchers have been working on, it would be beneficial to get a broad overview of each project.


Restoring Circadian Rhythms Disturbed By Jet Lag

An N3 funded, near-field powered implant is spearheaded by Omid Veiseh (overseeing the therapeutic biomolecules) and Jacob Robinson (overseeing the electronics in the bioimplant). 

The research aims to develop a self-generating drug factory activated by light sources and powered by magnetoelectric inductive materials or ultrasound waves.


Render of the proposed ‘drug factory’ implant.

Render of the proposed ‘drug factory’ implant. Image used courtesy of Rice University and Northwestern University


The magnetoelectric materials would be as small as a grain of rice and provide both communications and power for the neural stimulators. Creating a stable power source will be one of the most significant challenges of this research. However, if the research team can develop a magnetoelectric technology that works well, it might help open the door to future implantables. 

Circadian sleep cycles are easily disturbed by traveling through time zones and working shift work, which is a common hazard for soldiers and first responders. 

Another technology funded by the N3 program is a technology meant for brain-to-brain communication. 


Can We Develop Telepathy with Biotechnology?

MOANA, or magnetic, optical, and acoustic neural access, is the second Rice University program funded by N3. Fundamentally, it uses light to decode impulses from one users’ brain and magnetics to encode that information to the second party. 


A high-level overview of the MOANA project.

A high-level overview of the MOANA project. Image used courtesy of  J Robinson and Rice University


According to the researchers, this process is non-invasive (in line with N3). Still, it requires reprogramming a small section of the brain to produce synthetic proteins called ‘calcium-dependent indicators,' which absorb light. 

This project utilized technology that has to do with red and infrared wavelengths. The system will consist of light detectors and emitters, which are arranged around specific areas on a skull cap. The light will then be reflected off of the wearer's head; however, some will make it into the brain.


Electronics housed in helmets enable ‘thought’ transmission.

Electronics housed in helmets enable ‘thought’ transmission. Image used courtesy of J Robinson and Rice University


This is how the researchers are planning on "reading" someone's mind; by capturing and decoding the photons, once when they first make contact and again once reflected back to the detector. They also plan on using time-of-flight enhanced functional diffuse optical tomography (ToFF-DOT), which is similar to a CT scanner.


Multisite Electronic Stimulation of the Nervous System 

The final research project from Rice University is an implant powered by alternating magnetic fields is made novel by programming multiple devices simultaneously. This technology potentially provides enhanced treatment for motor function or cardiac regulation. 


Bio-implants intended for spinal and cardiac stimulus.

Bio-implants intended for spinal and cardiac stimulus. Image used courtesy of Rice University and Secure and Intelligent Micro-Systems Lab


Similarly powered by magnetoelectric transmission, the implant provides multisite stimulus from a single wireless power source between 40 mm to 60 mm. 


A breakdown of the tech used within the device.

A breakdown of the tech used within the device. Image used courtesy of Rice University


Though this technology has many potential benefits in the medical field, there is still much research and testing necessary before this could move towards real-world applications. Despite this common drawback with university research, there is an extensive trend in developing implantable medical technology.


Interesting Electronic Trends in Biotechnology

There is a common technology theme among all three research projects: wireless—specifically, magnetic application for power delivery and encoding/modulating of information.

Absent an endless internal power source, which is often considered pure science fiction; researchers have focused their energies on powering modern implants with magnetoelectric materials. This focus results in the conversion of magnetic fields to electric fields between a coil and a film. 


Using a magnetoelectric as a power source for an electronics system. 

Using a magnetoelectric as a power source for an electronics system. Image used courtesy of Rice University

A second theme, perhaps the most complicated issue, is overcoming the complexity of biology. The most common roadblock to these applications is quantifying the encoding and decoding of a variety of neural and nervous system signals.


Final Thoughts

Although principally funded by DARPA for military purposes, biotechnology advances of this nature will help all of society, from everyday citizens to first responders. 

Beyond the electronics themselves, there is a ‘mastery of engineering’ that has developed these natural electrical signals throughout millions of years. Today, we need to apply these biological lessons to advance the future of medical electronics.