UCF researchers develop sensor to detect brain disorders in seconds

First rapid detector for dopamine, a chemical found in Parkinson's, depression


ORLANDO, Fla. – University of Central Florida researchers have developed the first rapid detector for dopamine, a chemical that is believed to play a role in various diseases including Parkinson’s disease, depression and some cancers. 

The new technique created at UCF requires only a few drops of blood with results being available in minutes, instead of hours like other methods, without the need of a separate lab for processing samples, according to a news release.

Studies show too much dopamine can be associated with some cancers, while low dopamine can be associated with Parkinson’s disease and depression. More than 500,000 people in the United States have Parkinson’s disease and about 16 million adults are affected by depression each year.

While current methods used to detect dopamine are time-consuming, require rigorous sample preparation and specialized laboratory equipment, with this new device, only a few drops of blood on a palm-sized, rectangular chip is all that is needed.

“A neurotransmitter like dopamine is an important chemical to monitor for our overall well-being so we can help screen out neural disorders like Parkinson’s disease, various brain cancers and monitor mental health,” Debashis Chanda, an associate professor in UCF’s NanoScience Technology Center and the study’s principal investigator, said. “We need to monitor dopamine so that we can adjust our medical doses to help address those problems.”

The technology separates plasma from the blood within the cup. Cerium oxide nanoparticles, used to coat the surface of the sensor, selectively capture dopamine at microscopic levels from the plasma. The capture of dopamine molecules then changes how light is reflected from the sensor and creates an optical readout indicating the level of dopamine. 

Sudipta Seal, an engineering professor and chair of UCF’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering, said the use of cerium oxide nanoparticles played an integral part in the sensor’s success.

“Getting the sensor to be sensitive to dopamine had been quite the challenge for researchers for a while, but using altered cerium oxide nanostructures on the sensing platform was key in making the sensor work,” Seal said.

Chanda worked with co-developer Abraham Vázquez-Guardado, a graduate of UCF’s College of Optics and Photonics and now a postdoctoral fellow at Northwestern University.

Vázquez-Guardado said with limited steps and processing, the test is cost effective and can be performed at a patient’s side instead of in a lab.

“There is no preprocessing needed,” he said. “Our plan was to make a much quicker, enzyme-free kind of detection.”

The National Science Foundation and Northrop Grumman’s University Research Program helped fund part of the plasmonic sensor research.