AP Biology class blog for discussing current research in Biology

Tag: Nerve

Bioelectronic Medicine is Moving Fast, Artificial Nerve Regeneration to the Rescue!


Researchers at both Washington University School of Medicine and Northwestern have just made a discovery that has huge potential for future patients of nerve damage. Diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Bell’s palsy, Cerebral palsy, and many other illnesses regarding the nervous system/ nerves are one step closer to having a cure! Beyond chemistry and drugs, scientists are now using technology to find a cure using the first ever development of bioelectronic medicine. A device, ” The size of a dime and the thickness of a sheet of paper,” is implanted in the body to “speed nerve regeneration and improve the healing of a damaged nerve”.

This device, which is currently nameless, is powered wirelessly by a “transmitter outside the body that acts much like a cellphone-charging mat”. It is very thin and works by winding around a directly injured nerve(precisely where needed). After the device has engulfed the injured nerves, it delivers electrical pulses. These pulses accelerate wound healing and reproduce nerves. Doctors/ patients using this device have the ability to control the times which pulses are sent. Around two weeks after the device is injected, it naturally absorbs into the body not harmfully.

Image result for nerves

The device has yet to be tested on humans. Recent discoveries have been based on observations on rats with injured sciatic nerves. These nerves in rats send signals throughout the legs to control muscles in feet and legs as well as hamstring muscles. To perform the study, scientist spent ten weeks monitoring rats’ recovery while providing pulses one hour per day for one, three, six, or no days at all a week. After a little more than three months, researchers concluded that “any electrical stimulation was better than none at all at helping the rats recover muscle mass and muscle strength”, and the device accelerated the regrowth of nerves. They also concluded that “the more days of electrical stimulation the rats received, the more quickly and thoroughly they recovered nerve signaling and muscle strength”. Overall, no side effects of the device and its reabsorption were found.

Overall, this discovery can do great things for the human population. Making it extremely convenient, this device after put on can possibly replace pharmaceutical treatments for a variety of medical conditions in humans

Researchers are currently continuing to study this device to see what is most effective in animals similar to humans. They are evaluating the effectiveness of the devices different sizes,  duration, and fabrication.

Using Hair To Fix Nerves


Scientists at Wake Forest University have discovered that the hair protein Keratin has been shown to speed up the regeneration of nerves in mice. When nerve function is lost, the best option is to use a nerve graft from another part of the body, however this is an issue because it creates another wound site for the patient, which may not be tolerable due to ones condition. In an attempt to create another means of regenerating nerves, Dr. Mark Van Dyke and his team of researchers began to test the Keratin protein (which is found in hair follicles).

To test Keratin for its regenerative properties, Dr. Van Dyke used human hair collected from a barber shop and removed the Keratin from it. They then purified it and created a gel out of it to fill nerve guidance conduits. In order to study how effective the protein was, they studied the Schwann cells. Schwann cells are important in this experiment because they create signals that begin nerve cell regeneration. The results of this experiment showed their hypothesis to be correct, the use of Keratin greatly increased the activity of the Schwann cells. After this proved to be true, the scientists used a keratin-filled tube to try to repair a large nerve gap in mice (about 4 millimeters). The animals treated with Keratin were compared to animals treated with a nerve graft, and animals treated with a placebo. after 6 weeks, the entire keratin group showed visible regeneration, versus the placebo group who had about 50% show signs of regeneration. In addition, the speed of repair for the keratin group was much faster the other groups. 

The results of all of his tests proved his hypothesis of the uses for keratin. “The results suggest that a conduit filler derived from hair keratins can promote an outcome comparable to a grafted nerve,” said Van Dyke.



The Difference Between Itching and Pain

A new scientific breakthrough has led researchers to conclude that the feelings of itching and pain are relayed to the brain by different nerve cells. It was previously thought sensory nerve cells on the skin perceived both itching and pain. However, recent debate over this subject prompted a group of scientists at Johns Hopkins University to get to the bottom of it. In their experiments the scientists observed the reactions of mice to certain stimuli under different conditions. In the first experiment, the scientists isolated a type of nerve cell called MrgA3 by coating it with a glowing protein. They then exposed the mice to both pain and itch inducing stimuli, and found that MrgA3 sent a signal for both conditions. In another experiment, the researchers purposefully killed the MrgA3 cells so that they could observe how the mice responded to the same stimuli without them. They found that the mice acted in a similar way, albeit a stronger itching sensation was required to garner reactions similar in magnitude. This proved that there are other types of sensory nerve cells that are able to sense and relay the feeling of itchiness. In a final experiment, the scientists made it so that the MrgA3 cells were the only ones able to respond to a specific type of painful stimuli. After exposing the mice to the specific type of pain and to an itchy sensation, they found that in both cases the mice itched in response. This proved that MrgA3 nerve cells interpret both itchiness and pain as itchiness. This could potentially be very important to people who develop a chronic itch due to certain medications, or people with a phantom itch. Now that scientists know that only certain sensory nerve cells send the signal of itchiness to the brain, they may be able to shut them down when a patient has developed a chronic or phantom itch. Perhaps they will even come up with a way to stop the itch caused by wool sweaters, so during the next holiday season you won’t constantly be scratching when your mom forces you to wear one.


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