Leg Nerves Activated By Light Offer New Path To Restoring Mobility

For the first time, MIT researchers have shown that nerves made to express proteins that can be activated by light can produce limb movements that can be adjusted in real-time, using cues generated by the motion of the limb itself. The technique leads to movement that is smoother and less fatiguing than similar electrical systems that are sometimes used to stimulate nerves in spinal cord injury patients and others.

While this method was tested on animals, with further research and future trials in humans this optogenetic technique could be used someday to restore movement in patients with paralysis, or to treat unwanted movements such as muscle tremor in Parkinson’s patients, said Shriya Srinivasan, a PhD student in medical engineering and medical physics at the MIT Media Lab and the Harvard-MIT Program in Health Sciences and Technology.

The first applications of the technology might be to restore motion to paralyzed limbs or to power prosthetics, but an optogenetic system has the potential to restore limb sensation, turn off unwanted pain signals or treat spastic or rigid muscle movements in neurological diseases such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS, Srinivasan and her colleagues suggest.

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