For the first time, researchers demonstrated that nerves engineered to express proteins activated by light could generate limb movements that can be adjusted in real-time using cues generated by the limb’s motion. The optogenetic technique produces smoother and less tiring movement than similar electrical systems that stimulate nerves in spinal cord injury patients and others.
While this method was tested on animals, with additional research and future trials in humans, this optogenetic technique could someday be used to restore movement in paralysis patients or to treat unwanted movements such as muscle tremors in Parkinson’s patients.
The technology’s initial applications may be restoring motion to paralyzed limbs or power prosthetics. Researchers believe an optogenetic system has the potential to restore limb sensation and turn off unwanted pain signals or rigid muscle movements in neurological diseases such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).
According to the researchers, theirs is one of the few research groups that uses optogenetics to control nerves outside the brain. Most people use optogenetics to learn about neural circuits, but very few consider it a clinically helpful therapeutic tool as we do.
Artificial electrical muscle stimulation frequently results in fatigue and poor controllability. This study has demonstrated mitigation of these common problems with optogenetic muscle control.