Laser-Based Neural Stimulation
Stimulating Nerve Cells with Laser Precision
Newswise — Biomedical engineers and physicians at Vanderbilt University have brought the day when artificial limbs will be controlled directly by the brain considerably closer by discovering a method that uses laser light, rather than electricity, to stimulate and control nerve cells.
The researchers have discovered that low-intensity infrared laser light can spark specific nerves to life, exciting a leg or even individual toes without actually touching the nerve cells.
“This technique brings nerve stimulation out of the Dark Ages,” said Vanderbilt Assistant Professor of Biomedical Engineering and Neurological Surgery Anita Mahadevan-Jansen. “Much work is going on around the world trying to make electric nerve stimulation better, but the technique is inherently limited. Using lasers instead, we can simultaneously excite and record the responses of nerve fibers with much greater precision, accuracy and effectiveness.”
The method was developed by Mahadevan-Jansen; her husband Duco Jansen, associate professor of biomedical engineering and neurological surgery; Dr. Peter Konrad and Dr. Chris Kao of Vanderbilt Neurological Surgery, both assistant professors of neurological surgery; and biomedical engineering doctoral student Jonathon Wells.
In an experiment with rats, the scientists used a laser to stimulate the sciatic nerve and to control muscles in the animal’s hind leg and individual toes, demonstrating accuracy beyond the limitations of electrical stimulation. Immediately following the experiment, the rats regained full use of their legs with no signs of weakness or damage.
Konrad, who is also director of the Vanderbilt Functional Neurosurgery program, points out that neurostimulation is ideally done cell by cell. “The problem with the conventional electrical method is that we have a large zone around our target neuron that also is affected simply because of the way electricity travels throughout the tissue. Using light to stimulate neurons, we can pick off a single neuron without affecting the other neurons around it.”
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