Building on wireless technology that has the potential to interfere with pain, scientists have developed flexible, implantable devices that can activate and, in theory, block pain signals in the body and spinal cord before those signals reach the brain. The researchers, at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said the implants may one day be used in different parts of the body to fight pain that doesnt respond to other therapies.
TAKING ANOTHER STEP FORWARD IN WIRELESS, OPTOGENETIC TECHNOLOGY, RESEARCHERS AT WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY SCHOOL OF MEDICINE IN ST. LOUIS AND ENGINEERS AT THE UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS AT URBANA-CHAMPAIGN HAVE DEVELOPED NEW, SOFT, STRETCHABLE AND FULLY IMPLANTABLE DEVICES THAT CAN BE USED NOT ONLY IN THE BRAIN BUT THROUGHOUT THE NERVOUS SYSTEM TO POTENTIALLY BLOCK PAIN SIGNALS USING LIGHT. JIM DRYDEN HAS THE STORY
FOR SEVERAL YEARS, SCIENTISTS HAVE BEEN USING LIGHT TO ACTIVATE NERVE CELLS IN LIVING ANIMALS. INITIALLY, THAT MEANT THE ANIMALS HAD TO BE ATTACHED TO WIRES, WHICH LIMITED THEIR ABILITY TO MOVE NORMALLY. LATER, THE DEVICES GOT WIRELESS, BUT THEY STILL HAD TO BE ATTACHED TO A STURDY ANCHOR POINT. BUT THE NEW DEVICES ARE FLEXIBLE AND FULLY IMPLANTABLE, AND THEY DONT NEED BATTERIES, ACCORDING TO CO-PRINCIPAL INVESTIGATOR ROB GEREAU.
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Theyre wirelessly powered. They are no batteries. Theyre
miniaturized to the point that they can be fully implanted
under the skin. They are soft and stretchable so that they
can be implanted into areas of the body that are subject to
large degrees of relative motion.
SO, GEREAU SAYS, THE DEVICES CAN BE IMPLANTED INTO PARTS OF THE BODY AND ATTACHED TO NERVE CELLS THAT WERE IMPOSSIBLE TO GET TO WITH PREVIOUS OPTOGENETIC IMPLANTS.
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So you dont have to have a boney anchor point to attach this
device. When were trying to study parts of the nervous system
outside the brain that being the spinal cord, peripheral nerves
or even not the nervous system but other end organs, you dont
have that rigid, boney anchor point where you can attach these
GEREAU, WHO DIRECTS THE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY PAIN CENTER, SAYS THE EVENTUAL GOAL IS TO USE THESE SORTS OF IMPLANTS IN THE PERIPHERY, OR IN THE SPINAL CORD, TO KEEP SOME PAIN SIGNALS FROM REACHING THE BRAIN. BUT IN THE INITIAL EXPERIMENTS, AS A PROOF OR PRINCIPLE THAT IT WAS POSSIBLE TO USE LIGHT SIGNALS TO ACTIVATE NEURONS ALONG THE PAIN PATHWAY, THEY USED THESE IMPLANTS TO DELIVER A PAINFUL STIMULUS TO MICE.
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The devices, when implanted, can effectively modulate neuronal
activity in these circuits in the spinal and peripheral neuronal
circuits. The same technology, when paired with an inhibitory
protein, can then be deployed to inhibit transmission in those
pathways, and thats something that were actively working on
GEREAU SAYS EITHER BY USING GENE THERAPY TECHNIQUES TO MAKE NERVES SENSITIVE TO LIGHT, OR BY USING THE LIGHT SOURCES IN COMBINATION WITH DRUGS THAT ARE ACTIVATED BY LIGHT, IT MAY SOON BE POSSIBLE TO TREAT PAIN WITH THESE IMPLANTS. AND HE SAYS IT ALSO MAY BE POSSIBLE TO USE THE FLEXIBLE, SOFT TECHNOLOGY TO MAKE OTHER TYPES OF IMPLANTS SMALLER AND LESS BULKY.
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This device is specifically developed with optogenetics in mind, with
delivery of light in mind, but the tiny, biocompatible, electrical
circuits are something that can be widely applied. This technology
could be adapted, in a relatively straightforward fashion, to provide
electrical stimulation to, sort of, provide the next generation of
peripheral neuromodulation or deep-brain neuromodulation.
GEREAU ALSO POINTS OUT THAT THE NEW DEVICES HAVE BEEN DESIGNED IN A WAY THAT SHOULD MAKE IT POSSIBLE TO START MASS PRODUCING THEM PRETTY QUICKLY.
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We wanted to align this with manufacturing processes that would
allow us to produce these in adequate quantities that they can be
used widely by others in the field, to make this something that can
be broadly accessible.
GEREAU AND HIS COLLEAGUES REPORT THEIR FINDINGS ONLINE IN THE JOURNAL NATURE BIOTECHNOLOGY. IM JIM DRYDEN