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MIT says long-term monitoring of dopamine may be possible someday

Researchers say the sensors are so tiny they don’t cause scar tissue to form.
Felice Frankel/MIT
Researchers say the sensors are so tiny they don’t cause scar tissue to form.

MIT neuroscientists say they’ve learned that they can measure dopamine levels in the brain over a span of more than a year, a discovery that could lead to more discoveries about the crucial neurotransmitter.

The team says it’s developed tiny sensors that, unlike current electrodes, do not attract the attention of the immune system, so they can function for a longer period of time.

“Our fundamental goal from the very beginning was to make the sensors work over a long period of time and produce accurate readings from day to day,” MIT postdoctoral student Helen Schwerdt, lead author of the research, said in a statement.

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“This is necessary if you want to understand how these signals mediate specific diseases or conditions,” Schwerdt said. The paper appears in Wednesday’s issue of the journal Communications Biology.

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Dopamine is a signaling molecule used throughout the brain. Like other neurotransmitters, it is used by neurons in the brain to communicate with each other. It is involved in regulating our moods, as well as controlling our movements. Many disorders have been linked to dopamine deficiencies, including Parkinson’s disease, depression, and schizophrenia, researchers said in a statement.

Previous sensors could only be used reliably for about a day because the immune system would react and scar tissue would be produced, interfering with the accuracy of the readings.

The researchers said they implanted three to five sensors in test animals, took readings every few weeks, and found that measurements remained consistent for up to 393 days.

“This is the first time that anyone’s shown that these sensors work for more than a few months. That gives us a lot of confidence that these kinds of sensors might be feasible for human use someday,” Schwerdt says.

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One possible use for the sensors: monitoring Parkinson’s patients who receive a treatment called deep brain stimulation. The researchers suggested their sensors, by monitoring dopamine levels, could help deliver the stimulation only when it’s needed.