MIT Develops New Mechanical System to Trigger Neural Responses

The contact-free method could help create new therapeutic methods for diseases such as Parkinson's.
Fabienne Lang

Your body and its neural cells can respond to a mechanical effect — such as pressure and vibration — as much as it does to an electrical or a chemical one. 

Up until now, however, mechanical effects have been tricky for researchers to study. MIT scientists have found a way to do just that, which may bring the world one step closer to new types of therapeutic treatments for certain neural diseases like Parkinson's.

Their study was published in ACS Nano on Sunday.


No more wired connection

Thanks to the MIT team, typical neurostimulation methods no longer require external wired connections as their new system is entirely contact-free after the initial injection of particles. Then, all it takes is a magnetic field to reactive them whenever needed. 

This incredible new method opens up a way for stimulating nerve cells in the body. Up until now, that has largely been done by chemical systems through pharmaceuticals, or electrical pathways through wires that are linked to the body delivering voltage.

The new mechanical system, however, activates different pathways to the neurons.

The team focused on a specific group of neurons within a structure called the dorsal root ganglion, which are particularly sensitive to mechanical forces. 

The team had to develop mini discs with a specific magnetic property — these discs are only 100 nanometers wide. These can be made and injected in large quantities, which means that collectively, they are strong enough to activate the cell's pressure receptors. These are magnetic nanodiscs. 

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The team is still working hard on its discovery, as it is still early days. "This is a very first demonstration that it is possible to use these particles to transduce large forces to membranes of neurons in order to stimulate them," said Polina Anikeeva, associate professor at Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital, who was a part of the study. 

She continued "that opens an entire field of possibilities. … This means that anywhere in the nervous system where cells are sensitive to mechanical forces, and that's essentially any organ, we can now modulate the function of that organ."

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