Small, wrapped electronic implants that will revolutionize the treatment of spinal cord injuries – surgical techniques

Small, wrapped electronic implants that will revolutionize the treatment of spinal cord injuries

Authors: HospiMedica International staff authors
Posted on May 10, 2024

The spinal cord acts as an important conduit, transmitting nerve impulses to and from the brain, much like a highway. When the spinal cord is damaged, the flow of information is disrupted, leading to serious disabilities, including irreversible loss of sensory and motor functions. Traditional treatments for spinal injuries typically involve placing electrodes in the spinal cord and implanting devices in the brain, which are high-risk procedures. Now, a small, flexible electronic device wrapped around the spinal cord offers a potentially safer alternative in the treatment of spinal injuries.

An innovative device developed by a team of engineers, neurologists and surgeons from the University of Cambridge (Cambridge, Great Britain) was used to capture nerve signals transmitted between the brain and the spinal cord. Unlike existing technologies, the Cambridge device can record 360-degree information about the spinal cord, providing a comprehensive picture of its activity. Using advances in microelectronics, the team developed a method to access data throughout the entire spinal cord by wrapping very thin, high-resolution implants around the periphery of the spinal cord. This breakthrough represents the first successful attempt at 360-degree safe monitoring of the spinal cord, a significant advance over previous methods that involved piercing the spinal cord with electrodes, which posed a risk of injury.

Photo: 'Wrapped' implants represent a new approach to treating spinal cord injuries (Image courtesy of 123RF)

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

Developed using advanced photolithography and thin-film deposition, Cambridge devices are biocompatible and extremely thin, measuring just a few millionths of a meter thick and operating at minimal power. These devices work by intercepting signals from axons or nerve fibers in the spinal cord, allowing these signals to be recorded precisely. Due to their slim profile, the devices can perform this function without harming neural tissues because they do not penetrate the spinal cord. The devices were inserted using a modified standard surgical procedure that allowed them to be placed under the spinal cord without causing any damage. In experimental studies on rats, the devices successfully initiated limb movement and showed very low latency, comparable to human reflex responses. Further research on human cadaver models confirmed that these devices can be successfully implanted in humans.

The researchers believe their approach could significantly change the way spinal injuries are treated in the future. Although current treatments often require implants in both the brain and spinal cord, the Cambridge team suggests that brain implants may not be necessary. While definitive treatment of spinal injuries may still take several years, these devices could soon provide researchers and surgeons with valuable information by offering a non-invasive method to study a critical but understudied part of the human anatomy. The Cambridge team is currently planning further applications of the devices aimed at monitoring nerve activity in the spinal cord during surgical procedures.

“It was almost impossible to examine the entire spinal cord directly in humans because it is so delicate and complex,” said Dr. Damiano Barone of the Department of Clinical Neurology, who co-led the study. “Monitoring during surgery will help us better understand the spinal cord without damaging it, which in turn will help us develop better treatments for conditions such as chronic pain, hypertension and inflammation. This approach shows great potential to help patients.”

Related links:
University of Cambridge