Researchers have developers a flexible implant capable of relieving pain in patients. In what could be termed as a game-changing discovery, the implant is a water-soluble and biocompatible device that can serve as an alternative to painkillers — eliminating the need for addictive medications. By wrapping around the nerves to provide cooling in the region, the implant can numb the nerve and block pain signals to the brain, bringing relief from pain. Users can activate the implant via an external pump, while controlling the intensity of the cooling effect.
“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 relief,” said John A. Rogers, a professor at the Northwestern University and author of the new study published in Science.
“The technology reported here exploits mechanisms that have some similarities to those that cause your fingers to feel numb when cold. Our implant allows that effect to be produced in a programmable way, directly and locally to targeted nerves, even those deep within surrounding soft tissues,” Rogers added.
Developed by a team of researchers led by Northwestern University, the device works on the simple principle of evaporation. It contains a liquid coolant that works on a specific location on the nerve, numbing the pain in the process.
“As you cool down a nerve, the signals that travel through the nerve become slower and slower — eventually stopping completely,” explained study co-author Dr Matthew MacEwan. She explained that the device targets peripheral nerves that are responsible for communicating sensory stimuli to the brain including pain.
While the cooling can prove the much-needed relief to the patient, Rogers noted that excessive cooling can also end up damaging the fragile nerve and tissues around it. “The duration and temperature of the cooling must therefore be controlled precisely. By monitoring the temperature at the nerve, the flow rates can be adjusted automatically to set a point that blocks pain in a reversible, safe manner,” Rogers added.
Researchers believe that the implant can prove to be valuable for patients who need to undergo routine surgeries, or after amputations that require post-operative medications. Moreover, it could potentially replace opioids that effectively offer pain relief but are also highly addictive for patients looking to manage their pain with medication.