Organic ion transistor blocks pain signals from reaching the brain

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Researchers have developed an organic ion transistor that effectively blocks pain signals from reaching the brains of rats (Image: iStockphoto/Fanny Ståhl)

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A new type of medical device could one day put the minds of chronic pain sufferers at ease by distributing the body's own natural pain relief signals at just the right time. Developed at Linköping University in Sweden, the tiny "ion pump" is made from organic electronics and could be implanted in patients, serving to cut off pain signals in the spinal chord before they make their way to the brain.

Similar to the way a pacemaker delivers electric pulses to correct an abnormal heartbeat, the ion pump would send out neurotransmitters to prevent pain signals reaching the brain. The difference is that instead of using electrodes to send pure electrical signals, the device is built with biologically compatible materials and sends chemical signals that better integrate with our internal systems – like a kind of chemical transistor.

The idea is that the device stimulates the body's pain alleviators to intervene as pain signals travel through the spinal chord to the brain.

The researchers put the pump to work in conscious, freely moving rats. It was engineered to send out the pain relieving neurotransmitter γ-aminobutyric acid (GABA) to four separate locations where damaged nerves meet the spinal cord. It was found to successfully block pain signals from reaching the brain and had zero side effects.

"What’s unique is that we’re using organic electronics to send the body’s own chemical signals," says Daniel Simon, Assistant Professor at Linköping. "The organic materials are easily accepted by the body, and they communicate just as in biology, with charged ions."

The team says the device could find its way into clinics in the next five to ten years and could even be used to push substances to other parts of the body, such as the brain, for treating conditions like Parkinson's or epilepsy.

The research was published in the journal Science Advances.

The video below gives an overview of the ion transistor.

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