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Nerve to Implant, Someday

In a proof-of-principle study, researchers have genetically modified nerve cells so they produce electrically functional polymers, which someday could be used to connect to implants, New Scientist reports.

In a study appearing in Science, researchers from Stanford University altered neurons so that they would produce electrically functional polymers — either conductive or insulating — at the plasma membrane. They tested their approach in cells, tissues, and C. elegans to find that the nerve cells become coated in the polymer and that this affected their behavior. For instance, New Scientist notes that when the researchers targeted neurons involved in movement, the worms would either be loath to move forward or would make sharp turns, depending on the type of polymer introduced.

Such interfaces, it adds, could eventually be used to connect prosthetic limbs or treat conditions like epilepsy.

"Integrating cell type-specific conducting polymers into tissues could also enhance the regeneration of tissues after injury or disease," write Kevin Otto and Christine Schmidt from the University of Florida in a related commentary at Science. They caution, though, that there "remain considerable hurdles to the translation of cell type-specific neural modulation approaches."