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optogenetics for peripheral pain

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 doesn’t 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 DON’T NEED BATTERIES, ACCORDING TO CO-PRINCIPAL INVESTIGATOR ROB GEREAU.

(act) :17 o/c relative motion

They’re wirelessly powered. They are no batteries. They’re

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.

(act) :18 o/c these things

So you don’t have to have a boney anchor point to attach this

device. When we’re 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 don’t

have that rigid, boney anchor point where you can attach these

things.

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.

(act) :18 o/c right now

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 that’s something that we’re actively working on

right now.

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.

(act) :23 o/c brain neuromodulation

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.

(act) :11 o/c broadly accessible

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. I’M JIM DRYDEN…

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