Scientists develop biodegradable implant to speed nerve regeneration

Modesto Morganelli
Ottobre 11, 2018

Researchers at Northwestern University and Washington University School of Medicine have developed an implant no larger than a dime and as thin as a sheet of paper that uses pulses of electricity to stimulate the regeneration of nerves. This type of technology, which the researchers refer to as a "bioelectronic medicine", provides therapy and treatment over a clinically relevant period of time and directly at the site where it's needed, thereby reducing side effects or risks associated with conventional, permanent implants.

Auto accidents, sports injuries and repetitive tasks involving fingers, including typing, leave people with numbness, tingling and weakness in their hands, arms or legs.

According to the findings, published Monday in the journal Nature Medicine, the device regrew nerves in rats' legs and enhanced the ultimate recovery of muscle strength and control.

The findings are published October 8 in Nature Medicine.

For most people with peripheral nerve injuries, doctors suggest painkillers such as aspirin and physical therapy.

It is standard practice in nerve injury cases requiring surgery to administer electrical stimulation during the procedure to speed healing of the nerve.

"We know", notes co-senior study author Dr. Wilson Z. Ray, an associate professor of neurological and orthopedic surgery at Washington University, "that electrical stimulation during surgery helps, but once the surgery is over, the window for intervening is closed".

Unlike their counterparts in the brain and spinal cord, peripheral nerves running through the arms, legs and torso can regenerate after injury.

Electrical stimulation triggers the release of growth-promoting proteins that help the neurons regrow faster and more completely.

The biodegradable device is created to dissolve away and be completely absorbed into the body after two weeks. Wireless bioresorbable electronic system enables sustained nonpharmacological neuroregenerative therapy.

"These engineered systems provide active, therapeutic function in a programmable, dosed format and then naturally disappear into the body, without a trace", said John A. Rogers, co-senior author of the study.

The objective of the innovation is to speed up recovery in peripheral nerve injury cases that are treated with electrical stimulation during surgery. They used the device to provide one hour per day of electrical stimulation to the rats for one, three or six days, or no electrical stimulation at all, and then monitored their recovery for the next 10 weeks. Any electrical stimulation was better than none at all at helping the rats recover muscle mass and muscle strength. Others received no electrical stimulation at all.

"Before we did this study, we weren't sure that longer stimulation would make a difference, and now that we know it does we can start trying to find the ideal time frame to maximize recovery", Ray said.

"With this device, we've shown that electrical stimulation given on a scheduled basis can further enhance nerve recovery", he adds. "Maybe. We're looking into that now".

The scientists can control the exact number of days the device operates for before it biodegrades by altering properties such as material thickness and composition. New versions can provide electrical pulses for weeks before degrading. "But I'm excited about it because it's a new approach to treating peripheral nerve injury, and it might offer a solution where really there is none today in the clinical realm".

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