Robotic ‘Nerve Cuffs’ Can Treat Chronic Pain

The small-scale robotic device is injected into a user, wrapping around the nerves to block pain signals and potentially restore movement

Scarlett Evans, Assistant Editor, IoT World Today

May 7, 2024

2 Min Read
Visualization of the human spine

A team of researchers has developed tiny, flexible wearable devices that can wrap around nerve fibers, offering a potential treatment for neurological disorders.

Developed by researchers from the University of Cambridge, the “nerve cuffs” combine soft robotics and flexible electronics to interact with and control the nerves connecting a user’s brain and spinal cord, offering a minimally invasive treatment option.

According to the team, controlling these nerves could help diagnose and treat conditions such as epilepsy and chronic pain, or control prosthetic limbs. The cuffs can be used to either stimulate or block nerve signals, helping to relieve pain or even restore movement. 

“Current tools for interfacing with the peripheral nerves – the 43 pairs of motor and sensory nerves that connect the brain and the spinal cord – are outdated, bulky and carry a high risk of nerve injury,” the team said. “However, the robotic nerve ‘cuffs’...are sensitive enough to grasp or wrap around delicate nerve fibers without causing any damage.”

The small-scale cuffs are made of conducting polymers and are tiny enough to be inserted into a user’s nerve using a needle. When activated, electric currents pass through the cuffs to change their shape, allowing nerve activity to be monitored or altered.

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The cuffs were tested with rats, showing they could be successfully placed without surgery. Findings showed they only required small voltages to change shape and wrap around nerves.

“To ensure the safe use of these devices inside the body, we have managed to reduce the voltage required for actuation to very low values,” said Chaoqun Dong, study author. “What's even more significant is that these cuffs can change shape in both directions and be reprogrammed, 

“This means surgeons can adjust how tightly the device fits around a nerve until they get the best results for recording and stimulating the nerve.”

Next, the researchers are planning further testing of the devices in animals, with hopes of expanding to human trials in the next few years.

“The ability to make an implant that can change shape through electrical activation opens up a range of future possibilities for highly targeted treatments,” said George Malliaras, study lead. “In the future, we might be able to have implants that can move through the body, or even into the brain – it makes you dream how we could use technology to benefit patients.”

About the Author(s)

Scarlett Evans

Assistant Editor, IoT World Today

Scarlett Evans is the assistant editor for IoT World Today, with a particular focus on robotics and smart city technologies. Scarlett has previous experience in minerals and resources with Mine Australia, Mine Technology and Power Technology. She joined Informa in April 2022.

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