An 'ion pump' that mimics the how our bodies alleviate pain has successfully stopped pain impulses in living, freely moving rats, offering hope to those suffering with chronic nerve pain.
Swedish researchers from Linköping University and the Karolinska Institute equipped the rats with a device which delivers neurotransmitters to exactly where damaged nerves join the spinal cord. The neurotransmitters block the pain impulses from reaching the brain. "The ion pump can be likened to a pacemaker, except for alleviating pain," said Magnus Berggren, who headed up the research.
Most of this is already established science, so the real breakthrough here is the 'ion pump' itself. The team constructed the device out of organic electronics, a type of circuit capable of translating between electronic and biochemical signals. All the pump needs to do its job is an electrical current.
So far, no negative side effects have been observed on the rats, though research continues. Given, however, that the therapy mimics the body's own chemistry, the team is not anticipating any significant problems. "The organic materials are easily accepted by the body, and they communicate just as in biology – with charged ions," said Daniel Simon, who conducted many of the experiments.
If it all goes well, it's possible that the technique could be implemented within five to ten years to offer relief to the seven percent of the population of the world suffering from incurable nerve pain.
The team's research was published in Nature Materials.