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First ever bioelectronic medicine speeds up nerve regeneration in animal studies.

Car accidents or sports injuries, even too much texting can injure the peripheral nerves, leaving people with numbness, tingling or weakness in their limbs.  For cases requiring surgery, standard practice is to administer electrical stimulation during the surgery to aid recovery, however, it is not possible to continuously provide electrical stimulation at various time points throughout the recovery process.  Now, a study from researchers led by Washington University develops an implantable, biodegradable device capable of delivering regular pulses of electricity to damaged peripheral nerves in rats, helping to regrow nerves in their legs to recover nerve function and muscle strength more quickly.  The team states their new technology represents the first example of bioresorbable electronic medicine, engineered systems that provide active therapeutic functions in a programmable, dosed format and then naturally disappear into the body without a trace.  The study is published in the journal Nature Medicine.

Previous studies show unlike neurons in the central nervous system, the peripheral nerves running through the arms, legs, and torso can regenerate after injury.  It is known electrical stimulation triggers the release of growth-promoting proteins that help nerve cells to regrow faster, however, clinicians have lacked the means to continuously provide this type of boost.  The current study develops a thin, flexible device able to wrap around an injured nerve and deliver electrical pulses at specific times for days before the device harmlessly degrades in the body.

The current study develops a bioresorbable electronic device controlled wirelessly by a transmitter outside the body to promote the recovery of a damaged peripheral nerve via electrical stimulation at select time points.  The bioelectronic device was used in rats with injured sciatic nerves, known to send signals up and down the legs to control the hamstrings and muscles of the lower legs and feet. The device provided electrical stimulation one hour per day to the rats for 1, 3, or 6 days with controls receiving no stimulation at all, and then monitored their recovery for the next ten weeks.

Results show electrical stimulation was better at helping the rats recover muscle mass and muscle strength than in control rats.  Data findings show the more days the rats received electrical stimulation, the quicker they recovered nerve signaling and muscle strength, with no adverse effects detected from the device or its reabsorption.  The lab states their study also showed the device can work as an interface to the spinal cord, as well as other stimulation sites across the body, suggesting a broader utility beyond the peripheral nervous system.

The team surmises they have developed the first example of bioelectronic medicine, namely, an implantable, biodegradable wireless device with the capability to speed nerve regeneration and healing via set dosages.  For the future, the researchers envision these transient engineered technologies one day complementing or replacing pharmaceutical treatments for a variety of medical conditions in humans.

Source: Washington University School of Medicine

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