Increasingly, millimeter waves are being employed for telecomm, radar, and imaging applications. To date in the U.S, however, very few investigations on the impact of this radiation on biological systems at the cellular level have been undertaken. In the beginning, to examine the impact of millimeter waves on cellular processes, researchers discovered that cell membrane depolarization may be triggered by low levels of integrated power at these high frequencies. Such a situation could be used to advantage in the direct stimulation of neuronal cells for applications in neuroprosthetics and diagnosing or treating neurological disorders.

An experimental system was set up to directly monitor cell response on exposure to continuous-wave, fixed-frequency, millimeter-wave radiation at low and modest power levels (0.1 to 100 safe exposure standards) between 50 and 100 GHz. Two immortalized cell lines derived from lung and neuronal tissue were transfected with green fluorescent protein (GFP) that locates on the inside of the cell membrane lipid bilayer. Oxonol dye was added to the cell medium. When membrane depolarization occurs, the oxonal bound to the outer wall of the lipid bi-layer can penetrate close to the inner wall where the GFP resides. Under fluorescent excitation (488 nm), the normally green GFP (520 nm) optical signal quenches and gives rise to a red output when the oxonol comes close enough to the GFP to excite a fluorescence resonance energy transfer (FRET) with an output at 620 nm.

The presence of a strong FRET signature upon exposures of 30 seconds to 2 minutes at 5–10 mW/cm2 RF power at 50 GHz, followed by a return to the normal 520-nm GFP signal after a few minutes indicating repolarization of the membrane, indicates that low levels of RF energy may be able to trigger non-destructive membrane depolarization without direct cell contact. Such a mechanism could be used to stimulate neuronal cells in the cortex without the need for invasive electrodes as millimeter waves penetrate skin and bone on the order of 1–5 mm in depth. Although 50 GHz could not readily penetrate from the outer skull to the center of the cortex, implants on the outer skull or even on the scalp could reach the outer layer of the cerebral cortex where substantial benefit could be realized from such non-contact type excitation.

The stimulation system described here for cerebral cortex, brainstem, spinal cord, or peripheral nerves includes an implantable housing, a control unit carried by the implantable housing, a millimeter-wave delivery device (including at least one emission site), and at least one millimeter-wave source operatively coupled to the control unit, and coupled to at least one millimeter-wave emission site. Optional components for monitoring of neuronal function can be included, such as an electroencephalographic system, an electromyographic system, a system for optical or infrared imaging of intrinsic neuronal signals, and/or magnetic resonance imaging/spectroscopy systems.

This work was done by Peter H. Siegel of Caltech and Victor Pikov of HMRI for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. For more information, contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

In accordance with Public Law 96-517, the contractor has elected to retain title to this invention. Inquiries concerning rights for its commercial use should be addressed to:

Innovative Technology Assets Management JPL Mail Stop 202-233 4800 Oak Grove Drive

Pasadena, CA 91109-8099 E-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Refer to NPO-47198, volume and number of this NASA Tech Briefs issue, and the page number.

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This article first appeared in the June, 2011 issue of NASA Tech Briefs Magazine.

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