With the help of platinum, hafnium, and zinc, researchers have succeeded for the first time in directly stimulating damaged nerve tissue.
New hope for patients with nerve damage: researchers at Rice University in the U.S. state of Texas have developed a material that can restore the function of severed nerves. The invention is based on the so-called magnetoelectric effect, which refers to a coupling between a material’s magnetic and electrical properties. For example, the magnetization of a solid can be changed by an electric field – but conversely, magnetic fields can also be converted into electric fields. Researchers see great therapeutic potential for the latter effect, for example, in minimally invasive stimulation of nerve tissue and the treatment of neurological disorders or nerve damage, such as that which can remain after accidents or strokes.
However, nerve cells (neurons) have so far responded inadequately to the electrical signals generated in this way because they occur too quickly and evenly, Rice University writes. To remedy this problem, a research team led by neuroengineer Jacob Robinson has developed a new magnetoelectric material. It was based on a layer of lead zirconium titanate sandwiched between two layers of metallic glass alloys. By combining these two elements, a magnetic field applied to the body from the outside is converted into an electric field, explains Gauri Bhave, a researcher involved in the project. In addition, platinum, hafnium oxide, and zinc oxide layers were added to generate electrical signals to which nerve cells respond.
Significantly Less Invasive Treatments for Nerve Damage Possible
According to the scientists, the material produced in this way is suitable for precise remote stimulation of neurons. In an experiment with rats, the function of a severed sciatic nerve was successfully restored. In addition, magnetic fields could be converted into electric current 120 times faster than previous magnetoelectric materials.
According to the research team, these findings, published in the journal Nature Materials, could allow for significantly less invasive procedures in some regions of neurology. Instead of implanting neurostimulation devices, tiny amounts of the material could be injected into the desired location in the future. Moreover, because magnetoelectric materials have a wide range of applications, the researchers believe their development could also advance fields such as computer science, sensor technology, and electronics.
Read more: Strategic raw materials are also used in medical research. Australian researchers, for example, have developed a chip that can mimic human vision and memory. In Japan, a tiny, implantable micro-LED film has been constructed that can be used to illuminate different regions of the brain. Even in developing medicines, technology metals such as gallium can be used.