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Artificial neurons: A possible solution to spinal cord paralysis

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NOVEMBER 21, 2022

While there have been many advances in medical technology, legislation and advocacy over the years to help make living with a spinal cord injury, or SCI, more manageable, researchers have yet to develop a cure for SCIs.

According to a report published in 2020 by the National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center, there are between 250,000 to 368,000 people currently living with spinal cord injuries in the United States. Many of these people are partially or completely paralyzed due to their injuries, and as far back as the 19th century, people have attempted to find a cure for spinal cord paralyzation. 

In order to understand why it has been so difficult to develop a cure for SCIs, it’s important to understand how a spinal cord injury affects the human body, especially the nervous system. 

The nervous system is the pathway through which messages to move  are sent in your body. When you decide to move, neurons in your motor cortex, the part of your brain responsible for movement, quickly pass the message to the neurons in your spinal cord, which extends from the top of your neck to your lower back. From there, the neurons in your spinal cord pass the message to the neurons in your limbs, which are connected to your muscles.  

Your spinal cord neurons are an essential part of the pathway between your brain and limbs. So, imagine that neurons in your spinal cord become damaged. It is now impossible for your  brain to send messages to your limbs. No matter how much you want to move, you simply cannot because the pathway between your brain and your limbs has been blocked by damaged neurons. 

Researchers have been hard at work to solve the problem of damaged neurons. One proposal to solve this problem is to bypass the spinal cord by connecting a patient’s brain to the rest of their nervous system.  This would allow the brain to pass the message directly to the limbs, instead of going through the spinal cord. However, to do this treatment the patient has to be connected to an external machine, which can potentially alter one’s quality of life significantly. 

One novel idea is the use of artificial neurons, or ANs. These ANs would be designed to replace the damaged neurons within the spinal cord. The advantage to this treatment is that an AN can be designed to harvest energy from the body, free of the use of batteries. If perfected, this new method of treating spinal cord injuries gives exciting promise to the future of treating patients. 

There are multiple challenges, however, to perfecting this treatment. An undeniable problem is that neurons are extremely thin — they are thinner the width of one human hair. Being able to manufacture such a complex tiny object is a very tedious process to perfect. Along with that, these ANs would have to be implanted into the body in surgery through tiny robotics, another challenge to manufacture as well.

The AN should also be durable enough that it can last in the body for a lifetime and not degrade or become damaged. With enough support from the people, however, this sort of important human health research can provide better lives for so many in the future.

A biomimetic neuron is a type of AN that mimics a natural human neuron. As more research is poured into biomimetic neurons, there is promise in overcoming the hurdles that researchers are facing in designing them. 

Natural human neurons work by passing the message to the next neuron, which passes the message to the next neuron and so on. These messages that are passed are in the form of neurotransmitters, a type of molecule. A biomimetic neuron aims to do exactly this function of passing molecules as well. 

In one study, researchers were able to construct a biomimetic neuron that was partially able to do this. This is exciting news for the field, but of course there is still work to be done. Another review looks into how polymers in plastics can be used to mimic the human nervous system, among many other natural systems. It uses a material we already have, and applies it to manufacturing artificial neurons. 

These novel studies are huge steps in the direction of creating a functioning AN. However, there is a predicament: Research cannot be effective without the support of the government and the public. Researchers can outline and study certain treatments; however, we need to push these treatments into practice.

One of the ways the government can make this research effective is through funding, and so it is urgent that resources be invested into this field. 

Steps that we can take are to raise awareness for this sort of research through media coverage in an effort to bridge the gap between research, health care and the public. If you feel compelled to be involved, you can participate in clinical trials with the National Institute of Health or be involved with foundations such as the Christopher Reeve Foundation.

With research and support from those outside of the scientific community, a life free of external machinal for those with spinal cord injuries actually seems not too far away.

Ann Palayur is an undergraduate at UC Berkeley studying microbial biology. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter.

NOVEMBER 21, 2022