Neurophotonics, up close

Researchers at SMU are working with DARPA (the US hyper-advanced military research group that initially developed the internet) to create an artificial fiber optic signaling system that will directly interface with your body’s central nervous system.  This technology, called neurophotonics, would allow bidirectional communication to and from the brain, giving amputees with prosthetic arms and legs the ability to feel heat, cold and pain in those artificial extremities.  From the article:

The goal of the Neurophotonics Research Center is to develop a link compatible with living tissue that will connect powerful computer technologies to the human nervous system through hundreds or even thousands of sensors embedded in a single fiber.

Unlike experimental electronic nerve interfaces made of metal, fiber optic technology would not be rejected or destroyed by the body’s immune system.

“Enhancing human performance with modern digital technologies is one of the great frontiers in engineering,” said Christensen. “Providing this kind of port to the nervous system will enable not only realistic prosthetic limbs, but also can be applied to treat spinal cord injuries and an array of neurological disorders.”

This program follows in the footsteps of DARPA’s ‘Revolutionizing Prosthetics’ Program, whose goal was to have neuronal-controlled prosthetic arm to market before 2010.  According to their website, those advanced prosthetics are already in testing but they are nowhere near as advanced as this project.  A true fiber backbone for the body would act much like our spinal cords currently do, only faster.

The Future

Neurophotonics is an interesting field just in its infancy and it is going head to head with genetic engineering.  It will be interesting to see if this neurophotonic method, where structures we engineer are grafted into humans, takes hold or if genetic engineering, where genes are manipulated to bring similar results, will win out.  Another research company called Neuralstem is attempting to reconnect spinal cords damaged spinal cords from Lou Gerhig’s Disease with genetically engineered stem cells.

Stem cells have come under intense pressure as they are harvested from fetuses (sometimes).  Using them for research purposes was outright banned earlier this year in the US by a court ruling but the ban has since been lifted.  This neurophotonic method may win out because it is less controversial but first, both methods have to prove successful in further clinical trials.