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February 29, 2016

Engineering a spinal cord repair kit

New, multifunctional fibers to help repair nerve damage or deliver treatment for mental, neurological disorders

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.

The research in this episode was supported by NSF award #1253890, Optoelectronic neural scaffolds: materials platform for investigation and control of neuronal activity and development. This was a Faculty Early Career Development Program (CAREER) award.

Miles O'Brien, Science Nation Correspondent
Ann Kellan, Science Nation Producer

Any opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations presented in this material are only those of the presenter grantee/researcher, author, or agency employee; and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.