Montreal’s École Polytechique opened a lab Monday that could one day help blind people to see by directly stimulating their brains.
The lab, officially called Laboratoire d’assemblage et d’encapsulation de microsystèmes électroniques (LASEM), is the result of an $8.2-million investment from the federal government, the Quebec government and private sector interests. The facility will be a testing ground for breakthrough medical technologies and the officials behind it aim to build prototype chips that can be implanted directly into the human body.
“The main purpose of this infrastructure is to build smart medical devices. The project we are working on is to monitor and record signals from the cortex and stimulate it directly. Our main application is to create vision for blind people,” said Mohamad Sawan, the lab’s director and Canadian Research Chair in smart medical devices.
Sawan’s visual cortex stimulation project was judged one of the year’s 10 most important inventions by Quebec Science magazine. The lab will be used to further his research as well as conduct research into other areas like bionic limbs and a means to help paraplegics manage urological disorders by directly stimulating peripheral nerves along the spinal column.
The lab contains such equipment as an ultrasound microwelding device for electronic chip wiring, a scanning electron microscope, an X-ray microanayzer and a laser capable of welding various alloys.
“To have all this equipment in the same room, it’s quite unique,” said lab technician Lauren Mouden.
Mouden has been with the university for about a year and before that worked in the private sector, dealing with electronics, networking and telcommunications products.
Sawan said the difference between what the lab is creating and the products that might be found in a telecommunications company aren’t that different – the principles behind their creation are similar. But, said Mouden, the lab’s products will probably be smaller and obviously have to be extremely reliable. “When you put something inside the human body, it cannot break.”
Sawan said it will probably be another five years before a cortical stimulation device could be implanted in a human. Trials are currently being conducted on rats. Sawan also plans to widen the scope of what the lab can accomplish by developing devices that operate on a nanotechnology scale.
“We would like to be able to make hybrid devices,” he said. “I hope in two, three or four years, I can demonstrate the characteristics of those molecules and cells with a full system on a die.”
The lab will be accessible to École Polytechique Masters and Phd. students. It will also be available to students at neighbouring institutions like McGill University and the University of Montreal. Students from other provinces may be able to partake in the research as well, said Sawan.
Anything the lab produces will be a prototype device, added Sawan. Actual production will be outsourced to a third party, he said.