Your chances of getting a nasty migraine increase following a spinal cord injury, thanks to a chemical messenger in the brain that spikes to toxic levels, past studies have suggested. For treatment to get any better, researchers need to catch that split-second spike in action and closely follow its path of destruction.
Purdue engineers have built a tiny, flexible sensor that is faster and more precise than past attempts at tracking this chemical, called glutamate. The sensor, an implantable device on the spinal cord, is primarily a research tool for testing in animal models but could find future clinical use as a way to monitor whether a drug for neurotrauma or brain disease is working.
“When you feel like you’re running a fever, it doesn’t matter when you check your temperature — it will probably be the same for several hours. But a glutamate spike is so fast that if you don’t capture it at that moment, you miss the whole opportunity to get data,” says Riyi Shi, professor of neuroscience and biomedical engineering at Purdue.
Impact, such as from a car accident or tackle in football, can injure the spinal cord — also injuring the nerve structures that transport glutamate, which sends signals to excite nerve tissue for performing functions such as learning and memorizing. Damaged nerve structures mean that loads of glutamate leak out into spaces outside of cells, over-exciting and damaging them. Brain diseases, including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, also show elevated levels of glutamate. Devices so far either haven’t been sensitive enough to detect glutamate, fast enough to capture its spike or affordable enough for long-term research projects.
Purdue researchers are addressing these issues through implantable sensors that they have 3D printed and laser-micromachined — processes that are already used in the lab and industry.
“We wanted to create a low-cost and very fast way to build these sensors so that we can easily provide researchers with a means to measure glutamate levels in vivo,” says Hugh Lee, assistant professor of biomedical engineering, who focuses on implantable microtechnologies. Researchers can rapidly change the size, shape and orientation of the sensors and then test in animal models without having to go through the more expensive process of microfabrication.
Measuring levels in vivo would help researchers to study how spinal cord injuries happen, as well as how brain diseases develop. “How big of a problem is a migraine? Is too much glutamate really behind the pain, or is it that the system that cleans up glutamate is down?” Shi asks.
The researchers implanted the device into the spinal cord of an animal model and then injured the cord to observe a spike. The device captured the spike immediately, whereas for current devices, researchers have had to wait 30 minutes to get data after damaging the cord.
In the future, the researchers plan to create a way for the biosensors to self-clear of inflammatory cells that the body recruits to protect itself. These cells typically form a fibrous capsule around the biosensor, which blocks its sensitivity. The technology could also allow for implanting more sensors along the spinal cord, which would help researchers to know how far glutamate spreads and how quickly.