New Brain Implant Fuel Cell Runs On Sugar

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MIT researchers have developed a new fuel cell that could be used to power brain implants in coming years [1]. Just like human cells, the fuel cells run on glucose, which is the most common sugar in nature and in the human body. Human cells derive energy from glucose through a process called oxidation — a part of metabolism — that takes electrons from the glucose and passes those electrons from enzyme to enzyme in the cell, generating the energy molecule adenosine triphosphate (ATP).

Fuel cell

The logic behind using glucose as a fuel is that it’s quite plentiful in the body. For instance, as the fuel cell is planned to power a brain implant, cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) — a sugary fluid that bathes the central nervous system — would be a rich source of fuel. From the MIT news release:

The idea of a glucose fuel cell is not new: In the 1970s, scientists showed they could power a pacemaker with a glucose fuel cell, but the idea was abandoned in favor of lithium-ion batteries, which could provide significantly more power per unit area than glucose fuel cells.

The new twist to [this cell] is that it is fabricated from silicon, using the same technology used to make semiconductor electronic chips. The fuel cell has no biological components: It consists of a platinum catalyst that strips electrons from glucose, mimicking the activity of cellular enzymes that break down glucose to generate ATP, [and generating] up to hundreds of microwatts — enough to power an ultra-low-power and clinically useful neural implant.

The team hopes that glucose fuel cell-powered brain implants could eventually help paralyzed patients to regain mobility in their limbs.

A team of scientists from Brown University, Massachusetts General Hospital and other institutions recently demonstrated that paralyzed patients could use a brain-machine interface to control robotic arms; however, those implants have to be plugged into a wall outlet. The current research is a step toward developing implantable medical devices that don’t require an external power source.

Source: Massachusetts Institute of Technology


  1. Rapoport et al. A Glucose Fuel Cell for Implantable Brain–Machine Interfaces. PLoS ONE 7(6): e38436. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0038436.
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