Stimulating implant could speed up recovery from devastating nerve injuries

Peripheral nerve injuries can be devastating. These are the nerves connecting the spinal cord to the rest of the body. While they can heal in the event they are cut or crushed in a traumatic incident such as a car accident, this is a long process. Now a new implantable device developed by researchers at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) could prove to be a restorative game-changer.

The device not only lets clinicians record data about the progress of nerve regrowth, but also speeds it up by stimulating the nerves using continuous electrical impulses. The hope is that this will help patients more quickly regain control of paralyzed body parts, while reducing the amount of physical therapy they will need in order to return to normal life.

“We have developed a device aimed to treat atrophy associated with muscle denervation as a result of a traumatic peripheral nerve injury,” Malia McAvoy, a medical researcher at MIT, told Digital Trends. “Denervated muscle weakens over time due to lack of use. When the peripheral nerve finally regenerates over a period of months, it connects to weakened muscle and the patient must undergo extensive rehabilitation to recondition and regrow their muscle. To improve patient outcome, we created an implantable, flexible microelectrode array. These are implanted onto the muscle and stimulated electronically via Bluetooth signal controlled by an iPhone. [This keeps] the muscle active and strong during peripheral nerve regeneration.”

So far, the researchers have demonstrated the technology by stimulating the nerves in a rat leg by using an app to make them move. The results have shown significant improvement in muscle-fiber growth compared to non-stimulated denervated controls. According to McAvoy, the next step of the project will be to assess tolerability and safety during longer periods in larger animal models, such as pigs. After this, they hope to move on to clinical trials.

McAvoy warned that “mass market commercialization is a long way off.” Nonetheless, this is extremely promising work that has the potential to drastically improve patient outcomes. The researchers are also excited about the potential of the technology to help servicemen and women who have suffered major nerve segmental loss in the proximal limbs due to blast-related injuries.

A paper describing the work was recently published in the journal Theranostics.

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