This stretchy device wraps around nerves to relieve pain without drugs

What is going on

A new type of pain relief involves wrapping a small strip of material around the nerves to prevent them from sending pain signals to the brain.

Why it matters

If this prototype passes all the necessary safety and experimental tests, it could one day replace toxic opioids for patients with chronic pain.

On Thursday, researchers at Northwestern University announced they’ve developed a fresh, new angle on pain relief — and, most importantly, one that doesn’t involve the use of highly addictive opioids

It is a small, soft, stretchable device that can be implanted under a patient’s skin to gently wrap the nerves responsible for distressing pain signals. Usually, when such signals reach the brain, it is when you feel a prick, pain, burn, or other kind of painful sensation.

Once in place, the material — about the thickness of a sheet of paper — actually has a cooling effect to numb those nerves, preventing unwanted pain signals from traveling to the brain. not at all† Think of it like your fingers going numb when they’re super cold. If they hurt before, they probably don’t anymore.

Better yet, once the device has done its job, it dissolves naturally in the body as an absorbable sting. No surgical extraction required. Details of the design, which is mainly still a prototype, will be published in the July 1 issue of the journal Science.

“When you cool down a nerve, the signals traveling through the nerve slow and slow down — eventually they stop completely,” said Matthew MacEwan of Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and co-author of the study. said in a statement. “We’re specifically targeting peripheral nerves, which connect your brain and spinal cord to the rest of your body.”

“By delivering a cooling effect to just one or two targeted nerves,” MacEwan continued, “we can effectively modulate pain signals in a specific area of ​​the body.”

Diagram showing a forearm with the microfluidic device inserted near a pain area, indicated in red

Illustration of the implantable device in an arm. The red oval indicates pain. The device gently wraps around the peripheral nerve to dampen signals to the brain.

Northwestern University

In addition, the person using the device can remotely control the intensity of the pain relief, i.e. the cooling effect, depending on their individual needs. It is an aspect of the invention that is as fascinating as it is essential.

The cooling mechanism works because the device is embedded with microfluidic channels, which are tubes that can be manipulated with very high precision – this allows you to let liquid go in or out at will, without errors. And all the fluids in the channels of the new device work together to create the pain-relieving, cooling effect. These microfluidics essentially allow you to determine how much of each liquid is in it to determine how intense the cooling is.

It’s that kind of precise control via remote microfluidics that avoids the potentially dangerous side effects of other methods.

“Excessive cooling can damage the nerve and the fragile tissues surrounding it,” John A. Rogers of Northwestern University’s McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science, who led the development of the device, said in a statement. “The duration and temperature of the cooling must therefore be carefully controlled.”

The researchers pointed to other “cooling therapies” that have been tested in the past for pain relief, such as one that injected coolant into the body with a needle, meaning it couldn’t be precisely controlled. This can potentially lead to things like blocking the wrong nerves, such as those that are important for motor skills to function so that you can move your hand.

“You don’t want to accidentally cool down other nerves or the tissues unrelated to the nerve that transmits the painful stimuli,” MacEwan said.

In the grand scheme of things, Rogers, MacEwan, and fellow researchers are focused on finding new ways to give patients pain relief without the use of drugs — namely, opioids — because “although opioids are extremely effective, Rogers said, “they are also extremely addictive. .”

By 2021, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that there were an estimated 100,306 drug overdose deaths in the United States, 75,673 of which were attributed to opioids. And in the past 21 years, opioid overdose has caused more than half a million deaths, according to a 2021 study† And if you’re a little confused about the relationship between those two numbers – that’s because the number of fatalities has risen sharply since 2013.

It is a very difficult situation because many people depend on opioids to live a life without excruciating pain, but every time you take an opioid you run the risk of addiction. So do you choose the riskier, painless lifestyle or the safer, painful one?

Well, if the newly announced device does well with all of the subsequent trials, many people around the world may not have to choose either. This would be option three.

“As engineers, we are motivated by the idea of ​​treating pain without drugs — in ways that can be turned on and off instantly, with user control over the intensity of the relief,” Rogers said. “Our implant shows in animal model studies that this effect can be produced in a programmable manner, directly and locally on targeted nerves, even those deep in the surrounding soft tissues.”

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