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Tiny Wraparound Electronic Implants to Revolutionize Treatment of Spinal Cord Injuries

By HospiMedica International staff writers
Posted on 10 May 2024

The spinal cord functions as a vital conduit, transmitting nerve impulses to and from the brain, much like a highway. When the spinal cord is damaged, this flow of information is disrupted, leading to severe disabilities, including the irreversible loss of sensory and motor functions. Traditional methods for treating spinal injuries typically involve inserting electrodes into the spinal cord and implanting devices in the brain, both of which are procedures with high risks. Now, a tiny, flexible electronic device that wraps around the spinal cord offers a potentially safer alternative for treating spinal injuries.

The novel device developed by a team of engineers, neuroscientists, and surgeons from the University of Cambridge (Cambridge, UK) was utilized to capture nerve signals transmitted between the brain and the spinal cord. In contrast to existing technologies, the Cambridge device can record 360-degree information of the spinal cord, providing a comprehensive view of its activity. Drawing on advances in microelectronics, the team devised a method to access data across the entire spinal cord by wrapping very thin, high-resolution implants around the spinal cord’s circumference. This breakthrough marks the first successful attempt at safe, 360-degree monitoring of the spinal cord, a significant improvement over previous methods that involved piercing the spinal cord with electrodes, which posed a risk of injury.

Image: ‘Wraparound’ implants represent a new approach to treating spinal cord injuries (Photo courtesy of 123RF)
Image: ‘Wraparound’ implants represent a new approach to treating spinal cord injuries (Photo courtesy of 123RF)

Developed using sophisticated photolithography and thin film deposition, the Cambridge devices are biocompatible and extremely thin, measuring just a few millionths of a meter in thickness, and they operate on minimal power. These devices function by intercepting signals from the axons or nerve fibers within the spinal cord, enabling precise recording of these signals. Due to their slim profile, the devices can perform this function without harming the nerve tissues, as they do not penetrate the spinal cord. The devices were inserted using a modified standard surgical procedure, allowing them to be positioned beneath the spinal cord without causing any damage. In experimental trials involving rats, the devices were effectively used to initiate limb movement and demonstrated very low latency, comparable to human reflexive responses. Further testing with human cadaver models confirmed that these devices could be successfully implanted in humans.

The researchers believe their approach could significantly change the treatment of spinal injuries in the future. While current treatments often require implants in both the brain and spinal cord, the Cambridge team suggests that brain implants might not be necessary. Although a definitive treatment for spinal injuries may still be several years away, these devices could soon provide valuable insights for researchers and surgeons, offering a non-invasive method to study a critical yet underexplored part of human anatomy. The Cambridge team is currently planning further applications of the devices, aiming to monitor nerve activity in the spinal cord during surgical procedures.

“It’s been almost impossible to study the whole of the spinal cord directly in a human, because it’s so delicate and complex,” said Dr. Damiano Barone from the Department of Clinical Neurosciences, who co-led the research. “Monitoring during surgery will help us to understand the spinal cord better without damaging it, which in turn will help us develop better therapies for conditions like chronic pain, hypertension or inflammation. This approach shows enormous potential for helping patients.”

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