Researchers develop an implantable rubber-like fibre to better treat spinal cord injuries

Researchers have developed a rubber-like fibre, shown here, that can flex and stretch while simultaneously delivering both optical impulses, for optoelectronic stimulation, and electrical connections, for stimulation and monitoring
A conductive rubber fibre has been produced by researchers that could hold the key to improving the treatment of spinal cord damage.

Work carried out by MIT, the University of Washington, and Oxford University saw fibres produced that can flex and stretch while simultaneously delivering optical impulses, for optoelectronic stimulation, and electrical connections, to stimulate specific targets in the brain and monitor electrical responses.

“I wanted to create a multimodal interface with mechanical properties compatible with tissues, for neural stimulation and recording,” as a tool for better understanding spinal cord functions, said MIT researcher, Chi (Alice) Lu.

The obvious starting point was some kind of elastomer, but most of are not adaptable to the process of ‘fibre drawing’, which turns a relatively large bundle of materials into a thread that can be narrower than a hair.

“You can match the stretchiness with a rubber, but drawing it is difficult — most of them just melt,” said fellow researcher Professor Polina Anikeeva.

The team combined a newly developed transparent elastomer, which could act as a waveguide for optical signals, and a coating formed of a mesh of silver nanowires, to produce a conductive layer for the electrical signals.

To process the transparent elastomer, the material was embedded in a polymer cladding that enabled it to be drawn into a fibre that proved to be highly stretchable as well as flexible. The cladding is dissolved away after the drawing process. After the entire fabrication process, what’s left is the transparent fibre with electrically conductive, stretchy nanowire coatings. The fibre can stretch by at least 20 to 30% without affecting its properties.

“It’s really just a piece of rubber, but conductive,” said Professor Anikeeva. “We’re the first to develop something that enables simultaneous electrical recording and optical stimulation in the spinal cords of freely moving mice.

“Eventually, we’d like to be able to use something like this to combat spinal cord injury. But first, we have to have biocompatibility and to be able to withstand the stresses in the spinal cord without causing any damage.”

Author
Justin Cunningham

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