Innovation: Treating nerve pain with optical fibers

MIT has developed implantable technology that uses light to block peripheral nerve torment.

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have unveiled flexible, fatigue-resistant and implantable optical fibers that employ light to address peripheral nerve pain. This innovation, described in the journal Nature, can be applied in whatever part of the body - beyond the brain - and has demonstrated promising results in animal trials. 

The fibers developed by MIT engineers can be stretched throughout the body to literally illuminate the exact roots of nerve pain. By genetically altering these nerves to respond to light, the fibers can emit light pulses to suppress pain, the authors said in a press release

Remarkably, these optical fibers are adaptable and move in tandem with the body. Unlike conventional rigid devices that limit movement, these fibers accommodate natural motion, offering researchers invaluable insights without constraining subjects.

These new fibers serve as an experimental tool for scientists to delve into the origins and treatments of peripheral nerve disorders in animal models. Peripheral nerve pain, resulting in sensations like tingling, numbness, and pain in limbs, affects over hundreds of millions of people worldwide.

Optogenetics involves genetically modifying nerves to respond to light, enabling precise control over neural activity. While traditionally confined to the brain due to the absence of pain receptors, the team aimed to apply this technique to peripheral nerves, which are subject to constant motion.

The researchers engineered soft, stretchable fibers using hydrogel, a biocompatible polymer-water blend. These fibers, with distinct core and cladding layers, maintain efficient light transmission while accommodating body movement. Tested in mice genetically modified to respond to light, the fibers proved resilient during locomotion and effectively alleviated sciatic pain when stimulated with light.

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The technology represents a collaborative effort involving MIT, UMass-Amherst, Harvard Medical School, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and other institutions.

This research was supported by the NIH, the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Army Research Office, the McGovern Institute for Brain Research, and others.

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