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New Hope for the Medically Disabled

Neural prosthetics can bypass damaged nerve cells.

(NewsUSA) – Among the marvels of modern medicine are neural prosthetics, tiny bioengineered devices that surgeons implant in brain tissue to compensate for a variety of disabilities to the human nervous system. Physicians already have had much success with cochlear implants for the hearing impaired, with future research programs aimed at assisting epileptics, victims of Alzheimer’s disease, and even individuals who have sustained spinal cord injury and loss of limbs.

Neuroscientists see a vast horizon for these micro implants, which are able to read electrical and chemical signals from the nervous system to stimulate sensory function lost through disease or injury. What the amazing devices do is avoid the damaged neural lines of communication in the body to restore function. In the case of the cochlear prosthetics, for example, sounds gathered from a tiny microphone are converted to electrical signals and used to stimulate the auditory nerve of deaf patients.

Neurologists, orthopedic surgeons, materials scientists, and mechanical engineers are all collaborating on the research and development of neural prosthetics, which each year receive $6.5 million in funding at the National Institutes of Health.

Engineers play a significant role in the interdisciplinary research and development of neural prosthetics. Engineers will be called on to make innovative use of materials to design and fabricate devices that allow sustained electronic functioning in the environment of the human body, without causing tissue infection or other serious conditions. Research efforts have focused on technologies that enable the micro devices to be safely implanted in human tissue for long periods. Sarah Felix, a research engineer at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and member of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), is making gains with thin-film flexible polymer materials that allow devices to conform to the live tissue in which they are implanted.

Lawrence Livermore is currently developing neural implants that are able to restore auditory, motor and bladder function, aid speech, and control depression and epilepsy. Future programs at the lab include experimentation with deep brain and spinal cord simulation, which will enable physicians to advance neural prosthetics to the next level of human health and rehabilitation.

Promising clinical studies are underway at some of the most prestigious medical research centers in the U.S. as the scientific community continues to advance neural prosthetics to help disabled persons achieve quality of life. Indeed, neural prosthetics will be an intriguing pathway of multidisciplinary scientific and engineering development for years to come.

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