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Nanotech Research May Ultimately Lead to Retinal Implants

Researchers at Tel Aviv University are making progress in work to merge retinal nerve cells with electrodes in the hope of someday being able to create retinal implants for people. But that goal is quite a ways off, said research leader Dr. Yael Hanein. Until then, her team’s current invention might be used by drug developers investigating new compounds or formulations to treat delicate nerve tissues in the brain. "We're working to interface man-made technology with neurons” Dr. Hanein said. "It can be helpful in in vitro and in in vivo applications, and provides an understanding of how neurons work so we can build better devices and drugs," she said. Her group has developed a spaghetti-like mass of nano-sized (one-millionth of a millimeter) carbon tubes, and using an electric current has managed to coax living neurons from the brains of rats to grow on this man-made structure (see image, courtesy of Tel Aviv University). The growth of living cells on the nano substrate is a very complicated process, Dr. Hanein said, but the cells adhere well to the structure, fusing with the synthetic electrical and physical interface. Using the new technology developed in Dr. Hanein's laboratory, graduate student Mark Shein has been observing how neurons communicate and work together. "We are attempting to answer very basic questions in science," Dr. Hanein explained. "Neurons migrate and assemble themselves, and using approaches we've developed, we are now able to 'listen' to the way the neurons fire and communicate with one another using electrical impulses. Listening to neurons 'talking' allows us to answer the most basic questions of how groups of nerves work together. If we can investigate functional neuronal networks in the lab, we can study what can't be seen or heard in the complete brain, where there are too many signals in one place."

One application of Prof. Hanein's research is a new approach to aid people with retinal degeneration diseases. There are several retinal diseases which are incurable, such as retinitis pigmentosa, and some researchers are investigating a prosthetic device which could replace the damaged cells.

"Neurons like to form good links with our special nanotechnology, and we're now investigating applications for retinal implants," said Dr. Hanein. "Our retinal implant attempts to replace activity in places of the damaged cells, and in the case of retinal diseases, the damaged photoreceptors."

The team's major breakthrough is creating these man-made living "devices" on a flexible nano-material suited for the small area in the eye where new neuron connection growth would be needed. This is a first step in a long clinical process that may ultimately lead to improved vision for those with failing or failed sight.

This research was published recently in the journal Nanotechnology. [Press release]