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February 29, 2016

Engineering a spinal cord repair kit

Polina Anikeeva hopes to one day be able to regenerate the spinal cord to restore movement for paralyzed people or possibly bypass the spinal cord altogether with a device that mimics its function. With support from the National Science Foundation (NSF), the materials scientist and her team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) are engineering a nerve repair "tool kit," with an eye toward repairing damaged nerves and even growing new ones. They're designing multifunctional polymer strands -- thinner than a human hair -- that would be implanted right alongside damaged neurons. The strands can have hollow channels to deliver drugs, embedded electrodes to send electrical signals, or optical guides to transmit light for optogenetics, a method for switching nerve signals on and off. The team is also designing fibers that can act as tiny scaffolds or 3-D structures, to support new nerve tissue as it grows or even accelerate the growth. The ultimate goal is to help doctors treat diseases such as Parkinson's, schizophrenia and depression, in addition to healing spinal injuries. Anikeeva's research helps advance NSF's efforts to enable scientific understanding of the full complexity of the brain, in action and in context.

Credit: National Science Foundation

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