New flexible devices can be implanted into the body to block pain signals before they reach the brain. Previous pain blocking implants were not practical because they had to be tethered to a power source and anchored to a bone in the body. The new devices, which were developed by researchers at Washington University in St. Louis and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, are wireless and can be sutured into parts of the body that move, such as the spinal cord, bladder, stomach, intestines, heart or other organs. This is a breakthrough in optogenetics, a technique that involves using light and genetic modification to control the brain’s activity.
Like previous pain blocking implants, the new devices contain microLED lights that can activate specific nerve cells. To demonstrate that the implants could influence the pain pathway in nerve cells, the researchers conducted an experiment with mice that were genetically engineered to have light-sensitive proteins on some of their nerve cells. The researchers sent the mice through a maze with a specific area that would cause the implants to light up and trigger pain signals. The mice quickly learned to avoid that uncomfortable part of the maze.
“Our eventual goal is to use this technology to treat pain in very specific locations by providing a kind of ‘switch’ to turn off the pain signals long before they reach the brain,” said researcher Robert W. Gereau IV. The research is described in detail in the journal Nature Biotechnology.