The implant uses pulses of light to control individual neural activity. (Credit: EPFL)

An implant allows neuroscientists to activate or inhibit specific spinal-cord neurons by applying light at a specific wavelength. It will give researchers insight into how the nervous system works and the chance to develop new ways of treating neurological disorders.

The researchers encapsulate miniaturized LEDs in a flexible implant that is thin yet sturdy enough to be applied on the surface of a mouse’s spinal cord by sliding it underneath the vertebrae along the entire lumbar section. They then created a wireless electronic circuit that can be used to switch on one or more LEDs and control the duration and intensity of the emitted light with extreme precision.

Finally, through a customized embedded system-on-chip, the light pulses can be managed naturally, for example in response to muscular activity or some other physiological signal. The optoelectronic implantable system is controlled via Bluetooth.

The discovery is likely to boost the development of new therapeutic applications for optogenetics. The ability to stimulate or inhibit specific spinal-cord neurons using light pulses will eventually allow doctors to reduce pain, improve autonomic function and even treat paralysis.

There may still be a long way to go before their implants are used clinically, but the research team is confident that a version of their implant will be available for human patients in the not-too-distant future.