Light pulses treat paralysis in mice4th October 2010
Researchers working with mice are using pulses of light to control the animals' leg muscles, in the hope that the technique might one day be used to restore normal muscle activity in people with paralysed limbs.
Researchers in a growing field known as optogenetics first used light-activated proteins from photosynthetic algae to switch nerve cells on and off.
Now, they are applying the techniques to the peripheral nervous system, which controls voluntary movements.
A team of scientists at Stanford University in the US first inserted an algal protein gene into mice, causing it to attach itself to their nerve cells.
Then, they were able to stimulate the sciatic nerves of anaesthetised mice, using a cuff lined with light-emitting diodes.
The team, led by Karl Deisseroth, were then able to measure the resulting contractions in the Achilles tendons of the mice.
Electrical signals have previously been used to stimulate muscles and help paralysed people to walk again.
But electrical impulses control the larger muscle fibres, and don't allow for fine-tuned coordination and movements, and walking based on such stimulation is clumsy and exhausting.
Team-member Scott Delp said that light pulses reproduced an order of firing within the muscles that was closer to nature.
The researchers hope that the breakthrough will pave the way for further development of the technique for use on humans.
Future applications could include the use of light pulses to restore movement to paralysed limbs or as a treatment for cerebral palsy patients suffering from muscle spasticity.
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