Prof. Dion Khodagholy Awarded NSF CAREER Award

Electrical engineering researcher will develop high-performance, flexible, biocompatible transistors

Feb 11 2020 | By Holly Evarts | Photo Credit: Jeffrey Schifman

Dion Khodagholy, assistant professor of electrical engineering, has won a National Science CAREER award, the NSF’s highest honor given to early-career faculty, for his proposal to build a soft, flexible, and fully biocompatible transistor for bioelectronics devices. These devices are becoming ever more critical to improving human health, from in-home wellness monitoring to diagnosis and treatment of neuropsychiatric diseases, such as epilepsy or Parkinson’s disease, but are limited in use because of their bulky, rigid, non-biocompatible electronic components.

The five-year $500,000 grant will support Khodagholy’s project, “Soft integrated ionic transistors for responsive bioelectronics,” which focuses on leveraging soft and fully biocompatible materials to interact directly with signals from the body without damaging tissue.

“Developing high-performance, flexible, biocompatible transistors will significantly advance the design of bioelectronic devices,” says Khodagholy. “Devices that can monitor sleep stages, prevent falls, and send out alerts about imminent seizures will vastly improve people's lives, both patients and caregivers. And these devices will, in particular, enable experimentation that will greatly expand our understanding of neural circuits in health and disease.”

Bioelectronic systems are increasingly being used to understand dynamic living organisms and to treat human disease, and they require devices that can record body signals, process them, detect patterns, and deliver electrical or chemical stimulation to address problems. These systems, which must integrate biocompatibility, ion transduction, high speed, and reliable operation in physiological environments, depend on transistors, which form the backbone of the system. But building transistors that meet all the criteria required for safe, efficient operation in biological environments such as the human body has been a daunting challenge. Although a wide range of transistor architectures and materials are available, none incorporates all of these features.

Khodagholy’s goal is to develop ion-driven, conformable, implantable bioelectronic devices with biocompatible transistors, creating the circuits necessary to acquire and modulate the activity of neurons in the brain and to enable efficient interaction with neural circuits. His central hypothesis is that ion-gated transistors (IGTs) will effectively interact with neural signals because they can directly transduce the brain’s ionic flux, and are sufficient to create the integrated circuits required for fully implantable, soft, closed-loop devices that do not require rigid encapsulation.

He plans to fabricate IGT integrated circuits, determine the parameters governing their operation, and systematically characterize them in vitro, in an in vivo model of epilepsy, and in human subjects. He will then evaluate their performance relative to conventional neural interface devices. In addition to pioneering new techniques, Khodagholy’s Translational Neuroelectronics Lab is committed to engaging diverse communities around this work. The lab collaborates with HK Maker Lab on a variety of educational and outreach programs from high-school and undergraduate research to teachers’ and educators’ career development.

“IGTs that are low-cost and easy to build and manufacture will ignite technological innovation in multiple fields, enabling bioelectronic devices to be used where they would previously have been prohibitively expensive or risky,” Khodagholy adds. “Our novel, soft ion-gated transistor that can directly interact with the ionic signals of our nervous system will lead to the development of safer, more effective medical devices and offer exciting, new opportunities to acquire and manipulate neurophysiologic activity. This really will be transformative.”