On a bold mission to re-engineer brain parts

A European consortium is on a quest to restore typical brain activity in people with epilepsy, using a mash-up of custom organoids, microelectronics and artificial intelligence.

Top down view of a slice of a rat brain connected to an output camera.
Photography by Emile Holba

A coalition of 12 labs across seven European countries has set itself an ambitious, almost science-fiction-sounding agenda: The scientists behind a project called HERMES — short for Hybrid Enhanced Regenerative Medicine Systems — are working to engineer next-generation neural probes and artificial-intelligence-powered organoid-microelectronic implants to restore and reshape brain tissue damaged by epileptic seizures.

About five years into the effort, HERMES labs are testing their proof-of-concept creations. Emile Holba, a U.K.-based photographer, visited nanoelectronics engineer Hadi Heidari at the University of Glasgow, neuroscientist Gulia Curia at the University of Modena, and biophysicist Gabriella Panuccio at the Italian Institute of Technology (IIT) to photograph their output, shown below.

“Our dream,” Panuccio says, “is that we will be able, one day, to heal brain damage by means of tissue transplants, a reality that is only possible to date for other organs of the human body, like the skin.”

Neural probes in substrate, in yellow light of clean room, under a microscope.
Neural probes pointing upwards, in a small plastic box.
Two halves of a bright pink miniature brain-shaped mold for a gel test brain.
PhD students carefully linking probe to brain in live rat.
Pink rat brains floating in clear vials on pink tile background.
Researcher holds an image of a rat hippocampus slice in front of colorful vintage filing drawers.
Top down view of a slice of a rat brain connected to an output camera.
A tray of brain organoids.
Pliant probes: Neural probes developed by the HERMES team, shown here under a microscope at the University of Glasgow, are more flexible than traditional silicon probes, which can scar brain tissue. The malleable probes rely on a dissolvable outer coating to protect them from breaking during insertion.