Nanotechnology is one of those buzzwords that can seem difficult to pin down. So what is it exactly? For example, how does it differ from traditional chemistry and physics? And in particular, what does it offer to the study of the brain and neuroscience? The answer, in fact, is not bad.
The original ideas and concepts of nanotechnology are generally attributed to the famous speech by Richard Feynman “There’s a lot of room downstairs” in 1959, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist from the California Institute of Technology. Fifteen years later, in 1974, Norio Taniguchi of the University of Tokyo coined the current term “nanotechnology”. Over the past twenty years, he has had a significant impact on the way scientists study and interface the brain, including coming up with new approaches to treat neurological disorders.
What is nanotechnology – and isn’t it?
Nanotechnology is an interdisciplinary field of science and engineering that focuses on technologies and methods capable of manipulating and controlling materials and devices at the molecular scale using physical or chemical methods, or both . Typically, this occurs in a range of about 1 to 100 nanometers (nm).
A nanometer is a billionth of a meter. It’s nine orders of magnitude smaller than a meter. Or 1 / 1,000,000,000. That’s a little less than 0.00000004 inches. On the other hand, a centimeter is equal to 1/100e one meter, or two orders of magnitude smaller, i.e. the inverse of two times ten. A millimeter is three orders of magnitude smaller than a meter, or 1/1000. It is difficult to intuitively grasp the small unit of measurement of a nanometer.
Here is an example that will give you an appreciation of the size difference, not in spatial scales, but in time scales: Normally, you will not try to walk from New York to San Diego. It would take too long. But a change of an order of magnitude, i.e. being able to walk 10 times faster, would be the equivalent of switching from walking to driving. For example, let’s say you can walk 3 miles an hour. Driving takes you at 60 or 70 miles per hour. Now you could cross the country in a few days. An increase in speed of two orders of magnitude is equivalent to changing from walking to flying. It will take you across the country in a few hours. Three orders of magnitude are not technologically possible. It would get you from New York to San Diego in minutes. And that’s only three orders of magnitude, or a difference of 1,000 times – like going from meters to millimeters. Imagine how long it would take you if you increased your speed by a billionth! Now take this hunch and work backwards: think of a meter, which is just under a meter, and try to imagine a reduction of a billion times.
The goal of nanotechnology is to design functional properties at these extremely small scales – properties that are not present in the molecular building blocks that make up nanotechnology itself. An important distinguishing feature of nanotechnologies is that they can be defined on the basis of functional engineering properties rather than on the chemistry or physics that enable those properties. While this may seem quite nuanced, it is this functional, or technical, definition that distinguishes nanotechnology from the natural sciences.
As such, nanotechnology is somewhat not a new field of science per se, but rather the interdisciplinary convergence of fundamental fields (such as chemistry, physics, mathematics and biology) and applied fields. (such as materials science and various other fields of engineering). In this context, nanotechnology can be seen as an interdisciplinary activity that involves the design, synthesis and characterization of nanomaterials and devices that have engineering properties at the nanoscale.
How nanotechnology contributes to neuroscience
Like other applications of nanotechnology to biology and medicine, in general, research in nanotechnology and nanoengineering targeting the brain and neurosciences focuses on two general types of approaches: “platform nanotechnologies”. form ”that can be adapted and used to perform experiments that answer a wide range of neuroscience questions; and “tailor-made nanotechnologies” which are specifically designed to solve a specific problem or challenge.
The nanotechnologies of the platform are materials or devices with unique physical and chemical properties that can potentially have many applications in different areas of neuroscience. Tailored nanotechnologies begin with a well-defined biological or clinical question and are developed to specifically answer that question. Much effort has gone into developing new nanomaterials capable of serving as building blocks for such applications, for example.
Due to the inherent complexity of biological systems in general, and the nervous system in particular, the tailored approach often results in highly specialized technologies designed to interact with their target systems – such as a specific cell type in a particular type of cell. brain – in a sophisticated and well-defined way, and therefore better suited to tackle the particular problem than a generic platform technology. However, since bespoke nanotechnologies are highly specialized, their wider application to other parts of the brain or to other problems may be limited or require further development before they can be used.
Clinically, applications of nanotechnology to neurological disorders have the potential to significantly contribute to new approaches for the treatment of traumatic and degenerative disorders, as well as cancers, which can be clinically difficult to manage. The clinical challenges imposed by the brain and nervous system and the obstacles encountered by anything designed to target and interface with them are, to a large extent, the result of unique anatomy and physiology. In particular, the brain is computer and physiologically very complex, and has very restricted anatomical access.
Consider, for example, what is required of a typical drug developed to treat a neurological disorder. The drug is first administered systemically, for example taken orally, or injected into the bloodstream. It must reach the blood-brain barrier, a functionally protective barrier that covers the brain, while producing minimal systemic side effects along the way. It must then successfully cross the blood-brain barrier with minimal barrier disruption so as not to affect the normal physiology of the brain – or worsen an existing neurological condition. Once beyond the barrier, it must selectively target its target cells, for example a particular subtype of neuron in a specific part of the brain. Alone so can it fulfill its primary active clinical function, whatever it may be. This may involve altering the action of an enzyme, producing a new protein, or blocking or increasing a particular class of cell receptors. But he can’t do that if he can’t reach his intended cells safely, in sufficient quantity, and without causing negative side effects along the way. It is difficult for one drug to accomplish all of this on its own.
But if you pair a drug with a nano-engineered molecular vector, for example, they together become well suited to address these challenges, as they can be designed to perform multiple functions in a coordinated fashion. Within this framework of a nano-designed carrier, the drug that performs the primary therapeutic function becomes part of the system – just part of the equation, with other parts of the nano-designed carrier designed for the other list of. The requirements discussed above must occur in order to get the drug to its target cells. For example, “biomimetic” strategies incorporated into the design of nanoparticles can enable efficient drug delivery to the brain.
In fact, the prevalence of nanotechnology in neuroscience has been so great in recent years that there are now large organized research efforts where the role and contribution of nanotechnology and nanoengineering are not new, but rather a critical implicit component of the effort. The Brain research thanks to the advancement of innovative neurotechnologies (BRAIN) The initiative, launched at the White House in 2013, aims to revolutionize the way scientists measure, study and interface with the brain. To date, the main focus has been on developing breakthrough neurotechnologies capable of performing experiments and measurements on the brain that surpass any technological capabilities that came before them. From an engineering perspective, many, if not most, of the neurotechnologies that have emerged from the BRAIN initiative involve some aspect of engineering and technology development at the nanoscale. The methods and approaches of nano-engineering are the technical catalysts of neurotechnologies that have emerged from this initiative.