A newly developed MIT chip mimics the connections between muscles and nerves, as scientists try to understand diseases such as the amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.
The researchers managed to set up a neuromuscular junction simulation, a chemical synapse that ensures the distribution of impulses between the nerve and the muscle.
The device creates a muscle response by activating the neuron set through a light. The muscle responds with a contraction or a twitch.
The researchers tried to understand better the junctions and how they are impacted by various diseases.
“You could potentially take pluripotent cells from an ALS patient, differentiate them into muscle and nerve cells, and make the whole system for that particular patient. Then you could replicate it as many times as you want, and try different drugs or combinations of therapies to see which is most effective in improving the connection between nerves and muscles,” said Roger Kamm, Professor of Mechanical and Biological Engineering at MIT.
The MIT chip involves mice cells, selected to merge with motor neurons and muscle components. The scientists then measured the force used in muscle contraction and analyzed displacements.
The device was tested in a container filled with gel, which duplicates the separation between muscles and nerves usually occurring in the human body.
The MIT chip has the size of a quarter, and its purpose is to help health scientists test drugs for neuromuscular disorders, such as sclerosis.
The neuromuscular junction is involved in brutal diseases, on which scientists have little information. The research started in the 1970s when researchers tried to simulate the human body function in the lab. However, the studies failed to reproduce the three-dimensional environment where muscles and neurons live.
The MIT chip benefits from a 3D environment and compartments that separate the muscles and the nerves. Cells from mice were injected in the microfluidic chamber, where the muscle cells and the nerve cells grew and fused into a muscle strip.
The neural cells were previously genetically modified to respond to light through a technique called optogenetics, as using electrodes was inefficient in a confined space.
The device can also sense the force through flexible pillars on which the muscle fiber wraps.
In the future, scientists believe that the device could work with cells taken directly from the patient and then grown inside the microfluidic compartment, where the drugs could be tested without the need to involve the patient itself.
Another way to use the device would be to test how a stimulated muscle fiber responds to repeated stress, and how it affects performance.
The research was conducted by professors, post-doc students and researchers in mechanical and biological engineering at MIT, with funding provided by the National Science Foundation.
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