Bioengineering: Reaching for the future with lifelike prosthetics

May 7, 2002

Brussels, 06 May 2002

Is it possible to make a plastic so lifelike that severed human nerves could grow right through it and attach to electrodes in, say, a prosthetic hand? This is the question Tobias Nyberg and colleagues from Linköping University in Sweden want to answer.

Creating an organic polymer (plastic) flexible and permeable enough to allow nerves to pass through was just one of the tasks confronted by Nyberg working in the labs at the Biomolecular & Organic Electronics Department. Finding ways to get tangled nerves to sort themselves into threads capable of connecting with electrodes in a prosthetic was an equally challenging task.

This is where cell biologist, Helena Jerregård, also from Linköping University, came into the picture. Together, they came up with a breakthrough design which takes plastic etched with what Nyberg calls 'patterns of tiny channels 20 millionths of a metre in size', covering this material with an electrically conductive polymer as well as a protein which the nerves can, effectively, grow on. If fully realised, it is easy to see the potential of this discovery in the world of medicine and bioengineering.

Might 'future prosthetics' respond to human neurological instructions? This opens up a range of possibilities for the millions of amputees around the world. And threatens to bring Steve Austin, the Bionic Man and hero of the 1970s US action series, The Six Million Dollar Man, back to life. But this time for real.

Added possibilities

The results of Nyberg's research are also the subject of a dissertation entitled 'Nano- and micro-patterned organic devices - From neural interfaces to optoelectronic devices', which he will defend this week. This title hints at several other applications for the new process, namely in the area of optics and electronics.

The key is to allow more light to be absorbed by the material. For this, Nyberg has found a way to create light-refracting patterns less than a thousandth of a millimetre which prevent light from going straight through. The Linköping researcher has also invented and applied for a patent to use special nano-scale patterns to make what he calls 'micro-domes' of water. Through a complex process involving, among other things, water cooling and condensing, he envisages a number of practical applications such as in camera apertures, light diodes, and solar cells.

Source: The Swedish Research Council
Websites: ml


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