Scientists recently showed a captivating new design for an extremely small, inflatable spinal cord implant suited for chronic back pain treatment that does not react to the medication.

ScienceAlert reported that the inflatable electronic device is part of an SCS or spinal cord stimulator setup, a type of well-established treatment that delivers mild electric currents to an individual's spinal cord through implanted electrodes.

That particular current is delivered by a tiny, implanted pulse generator device, and the entire thing lessens pain since the electrical pulses help to mask pain indications traveling to the brain through the spinal cord. The science information site specified, if everything sounds rather invasive, "that's because it is." 

However, this new device, developed by a team of scientists from the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, could contribute to change that with invasive requirements for surgery.

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Science Times - Spinal Cord Implant: Scientists Develop Inflatable Electronic Device Suited for Severe Chronic Back Pain Treatment
(Photo: UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering on Wikimedia Commons)
To implant the most effective devices presently available, those that are shaped like small paddles, surgeons need to remove a tiny piece of a vertebra and thread it through.

Spinal Cord Stimulation

According to clinical neuroscientist Damiano Barone from the University of Cambridge, spinal cord stimulation is a therapy "of last resort," for individuals whose pain turns out so severe that it's preventing them from performing everyday activities.

An efficient device that does not require invasive surgery could bring relief to a lot of people, the clinical neuroscientist explained.

The trickiest aspect of presently available SCS devices, as explained in the Mayfield Brain & Spine site, is the part where one has to stick electrodes into the spinal column of a person, laying them across dura, the fibrous outer layer warping around the nerve cells within.

While the electrode implants are small, just several millimeters across, getting to the spinal column through the protective, bony vertebra is not an easy task.

To implant the most effective devices presently available, those that are shaped like small paddles, surgeons need to remove a tiny piece of a vertebra and thread it through.

On the other hand, there are tinier devices available that can be inserted in a large needle, although these have proven to be less efficient at actually handling pain, probably due to the fact that they tend to manage lesser electrodes over smaller areas.

Inflatable Device

The new inflatable device is combining the best of both worlds. Inventively, it can be rolled up to a diameter of only two millimeters, enabling it to fit inside an ordinary hollow needle just a little thicker compared to the ones usually used for epidural anesthetic.

Once in position, the device is then rolled out into the more effective paddle shape similar to a "teeny small air mattress" up to a thickness of 60 micrometers, with only a small squirt of liquid or air.

As indicated in the study, Electronics with shape actuation for minimally invasive spinal cord stimulation, published in Science Advances, this clever application is plausible since the researchers combined a pair of paradigms in their design, flexible electronics that allow for a device to change its shape following implementation, not to mention the addition of microfluidic channels for inflating it.

Christopher Proctor, an engineer from the University of Cambridge, said thin-film electronics are not new, although incorporating fluid chambers is what's making their device unique. Essentially, he explained, it allows it to be inflated into a paddle-type shape once it is inside the patient.

Device Tested in Vitro

The researchers tested their device in vitro, with a model of a spinal column to see how such electrodes would carry out after all that rolling out and inflating, as well as achieving outstanding results.

Then, they proceeded to verify the design with implantation surgeries on human cadavers that had been donated to science.

Describing their intention in their study, the researchers said, it was to validate the fundamental mode of operation for the device and for its mechanical capability to be tested.

In general, the scientists believe that their design, already patented by the University of Cambridge's commercialization arm, could not just lessen the need for invasive surgery for the delivery of life-changing SCS treatment to people who live with severe pain but improves the availability of such devices as well, for future applications.

The study authors said they envision a device that could cover a much bigger area while keeping a tiny insertion footprint, "offering a new paradigm for central nervous system interface."

Related information about spinal cord stimulator is shown on The Spine & Pain Institute of New York's YouTube video below:

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