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In news that could be significant for patients with brain or nerve issues, researchers at Rice University have developed a new material that they say can stimulate neural tissue in a less invasive manner than previous treatments, and also allow nerve signals to flow again despite a severed connection.

The research team at Rice says they've developed a magnetoelectric material, meaning it converts magnetic fields into electric fields. Doctors have long pondered whether such a biomedical material could help patients suffering from brain and nerve problems, but previous experiments on magnetoelectrics had a difficult time making neurons react to the converted electrical signal.

"We asked, ‘Can we create a material that can be like dust or is so small that by placing just a sprinkle of it inside the body you’d be able to stimulate the brain or nervous system?’" asked lead researcher Joshua Chen, a Rice doctoral alumnus, in a statement about the research. "With that question in mind, we thought that magnetoelectric materials were ideal candidates for use in neurostimulation. They respond to magnetic fields, which easily penetrate into the body, and convert them into electric fields — a language our nervous system already uses to relay information."

Using rats as experimental subjects, according to a study published in the journal Nature Materials, the researchers were able to spark neurons to "restore a sensory reflex" and also allowed neural signals to flow again despite a severed nerve. In addition, they say the new material converts magnetic fields to electric fields 120 times faster than previous candidates.

The material is also extremely tiny — as small as a fleck of dust on a penny. But it's a sophisticated piece of engineering; it's made up of the inorganic compound lead zirconium titanate, sandwiched between two layers of a special type of metallic glass alloy. The researchers then stacked atop this sandwich layers of platinum, hafnium oxide and zinc oxide.

"A lot of work went into making this very thin layer of less than 200 nanometers that gives us the really special properties," said Rice University neuroengineer and the study's principal investigator Jacob Robinson in a statement.

While neurons couldn't detect the electric signal from previous magnetoelectric materials because the signal was too high, the scientists say the new material is able to create an electric signal that neurons can pick up.

The material presages a future in which an injection could precisely stimulate damaged nerves so that movement and function are restored. And beyond biomedical uses, the researchers envision that this magnetoelectric material can be potentially applied in computing, electronics and more.

"Once you discover a new material or class of materials, I think it’s really hard to anticipate all the potential uses for them," said Robinson.

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