Advances in science and technology have allowed us to bring an end to some of Earth’s deadliest diseases. Smallpox, which killed more than 200 million people in the 20th century alone, was eradicated in 1980. Over the last two decades, novel cancer treatments have led to a 17% decline in death rates. And HIV, which was a death sentence in the 1990s, is now considered a manageable illness.
Yet, when it comes to diseases that impact the human brain, we are virtually powerless.
At the Boma France Campfire, Bertrand Duplat, CEO of Robeauté, noted that many neurological disorders still don’t have any approved forms of treatment, and the treatments that do exist are in dire need of an update.
To explain why treating brain diseases is so difficult, Duplat likened the mind to an impenetrable fortress. “Imagine a city surrounded by a river and a wall. In this city, there are fires. If you’re near a fire, it’s easy to put it out and even repair what’s causing the damage. Except that you don't have the ability to be in the city. You’re outside it.” In this story, Duplat noted that the city is the human brain. And the wall that neuroscientists are stuck behind? The blood-brain barrier.
Inside every human, there is a border that separates their brain from materials that could cause irreparable damage. This border is the blood-brain barrier. It’s a thin layer of cells that prevents circulating blood, and the pathogens and toxins that it carries, from passing through and entering brain tissues.
However, this also prevents life-saving drugs from reaching necessary areas of our system — like a cancerous tumor. Today, Duplat states that scientists only have two options when it comes to bypassing the blood-brain barrier to get treatments into the needed areas, “either you cause a flood in the city, with the disastrous consequences it entails, or you break through the city walls and destroy everything in your path to reach the fire and put it out.”
In other words, all of our options rely on alarmingly imprecise methods that involve flooding the brain with drugs or violently breaching the blood-brain barrier. Each method has the potential to cause massive damage to other areas of the brain.
However, Duplat noted that new advances in neuroscience and robotics are finally allowing us to turn the tide on brain diseases. At the event, Duplat announced that he and his team have created a new kind of neurological treatment, one that allows them to “move around following the streets and put out the fire exactly where it is.” And this treatment comes in the form of a brand-new kind of submillimeter robot — one that operates within the human brain.
Duplat stated that this nanobot is smaller than a human cell. As a result, it can enter the brain, navigate through tissues and cells, and reach the targeted area without causing trauma.
A New Kind of Nanobot
To create the robot, Duplat explained that the team had to use a new kind of engineering. “The problem is that, at this nanoscopic scale, physics becomes different. The challenges are, for example, huge in terms of travel. Imagine you're swimming in a pool. You make a few movements, and if you stop the movements, you keep moving forward. Now, it's like swimming in a liquid of very high viscosity,” he said.
To overcome these challenges, the team combined the latest advances in engineering, neuroscience, and physics. For starters, the nanobot is composed of polymers, making it flexible. And nanoelectronics included in the device allow it to send critical information back to neuroscientists. “The power of the robot comes from the fact that it is in constant communication with the outside world. It gives information about ph levels, temperature, and other measurements that were previously impossible to get,” Duplat said.
In the future, Duplat notes that the technology could be used to help us understand each individual neuron, which could lead to a host of neurological advances and open the human brain to scientists for the first time in history.