Spinal Injury - Can Digital Health Help?


January 20, 2016

Spinal Injury. To some of you, these are just two words. And still, there is so much damage behind those words. These are two “life changing” words. The spinal injury is a damage that for sure, is going to change your life. Your family’s life.


Spinal Injury, Flexible Implantables

Still, there is good news. You see, we are living in the age of the digital health. It is a new healthcare system. A new care system based on new tech and new ideas. In the digital health care, the mapping of the human brain is vital. And so it is the case with the DNA sequencing.

However, it does not stop here. The digital health lets us read the brain signals and use them to control the wheelchairs. You can use your brain to control flying drones. Soon, you’ll control the smart objects around you, just with your thoughts.

The telekinesis and telepathy scenes from the Sci-FI movies are becoming a reality. Right under your eyes. You can 3D print human organs. You can replace faulty body parts. You have smart implantables in your body. And still, there are parts of the healthcare or medicine that have not changed much in ages.

Take, for example, the way we connect the new sensors, chipsets and electrodes to a human spine in case of a spinal injury. Most of the implants we use to interface with the nervous system have the same problem. The materials used are just hard wires. Hard, rigid wires that we try to connect to soft tissues.


Spinal Injury - New Materials Needed.

You need the new tech to work its magic here too. You need a new, soft, flexible, electronic implant. And this is the reason that motivated the researchers at the École Polytechnique Fédérale in Switzerland, to design a new material. A new material doctors can use in spinal injury implants.

The story starts with Gregoire Courtine and his team of scientists. They were using old implants in mice with spinal injury problems. In their work, they were trying to get the mice walk again. However, the rigid wires ended up damaging the mice’s nervous systems.

Courtine decided that here has to be a better way. There has to be a better material that would not damage the nervous system in its patients. Few months later, together with the electrical engineer Stéphanie Lacour, they came up with a new type of implant.

It is a new material that has the same ability to bend and stretch just as the “dura mater.” That is the membrane that surrounds the brain and the spinal cord. It is from soft silicone, flexible gold wires, and rubbery electrodes flecked with platinum. It also has a microchannel through which the researchers can pump in the drugs needed in a spinal injury case. They call it “e-dura.”

Their work adds to the ongoing advances in flexible electronics. More doctors and experts are collaborating to make patches that match the properties of the skin but also include circuits, smart sensors. It is the age of digital health.


Viscoelasticity spinal injury treatment

You witness a new era of stretchable electronics. A new era of smart sensors that can send and receive signals from your nerves.

“People are pushing forward because everyone wants to interact with the brain and nervous system.” Says Polina Anikeeva, a scientist at MIT.

She also works on ultrathin fiber-optic threads, as a different way of interfacing with neural tissue.

The old metal or plastic electrodes cause compression and tissue damage. A rigid implant, even if it is a thin one, will still not stretch as the spinal cord. It slides against the tissue and causes damage, inflammation. Just a simple move where you have to bend over and tie your shoelaces can do much harm. The spinal cord stretches by several percent, but the classic implants cannot follow.

In this case, the new implant mimics the property of the human tissues. It is called viscoelasticity. You can picture something between a rubber band and a very thick fluid. If you pinch the skin on your hand with force, it will deform. But then, it flows back into its place. Same here, the new implants. You can stretch it. You can deform it. You can fold it. However, it always goes back to its shape and form.


Flexible Implantables mice paralyzed

Using the new flexible implant, Swiss scientists can overcome the spinal injury in rats by wrapping it around the spinal cord. They’ve can send the needed electrical signals to make the rodent’s legs move. On the top of that, with the new implant they can also deliver medicine, in the right spot. Right through the flexible implant.

Two months later, the doctors checked the spinal injury and the nerves for signs of tissue damage. Something expected with conventional electrodes. In most cases, the old wires cause immune reactions and impair the animal’s ability to move. It was not the case this time. Even after two months, the connection was clean and safe. The results of the spinal injury operation were a success.

You know where I am going with this. The aim of the research is to achieve implants that could restore a paralysed person’s ability to walk. Discover the new type of implants that we can also use in humans. Make better implants for the spinal injury cases that could allow our loved ones walk again one day.

Moreover, this is what digital health also does. Not just brain mapping. Not just DNA sequencing, but also simple things like safe implants, which can last for much longer in our bodies.

It gives us implants that can match the properties of the human tissue. Flexible implants that can help us enjoy life again. New implants that can give us another chance.


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