It’s been many years since the $6-million man showed us what technology can do for the human body; at the time it was fiction but now, not so much.
A new study recently published by Science Translational Medicine shows that a cochlear implant releasing electrical pulses can generate re-growth of the auditory nerve function and deliver gene therapy for a variety of diseases and conditions.
Co-author of the study Matthias Klugmann from the University of New South Wales Translational Neuroscience Facility posits:
“Our work has implications far beyond hearing disorders. Gene therapy has been suggested as a treatment concept even for devastating neurological conditions and our technology provides a novel platform for safe and efficient gene transfer into tissues as delicate as the brain.”
Research on the cochlear implant started with the idea of finding a safe way to stimulate auditory nerve endings to regenerate; it is known that this is possible, given the presence of certain proteins called neurotrophins.
What the scientists discovered is that electric pulses sent from the implants conduct DNA which then activates regeneration of the adjacent cells after gene delivery. The electricity is delivered during the procedure to install the implant, describes study author Jeremy Pinyon:
“The surgeon who installs the device would inject the DNA solution into the cochlea and then fire electrical impulses to trigger the DNA transfer once the implant is inserted.”
One of the great benefits of the cochlear implant as a treatment for hearing loss is that it expands the ability to hear a much more extensive range of tones that can include music. Current implants are good at helping people to hear voice and speech but the tonal spectrum is limited. Once auditory nerves have been regenerated, they again become sensitive to the full range of sound.
Not only that, but there is separate research underway to create the tissue for a real physical ear using a 3-D printer.
The Australian researchers postulate that the process for delivering gene therapy through a cochlear implant isn’t limited to neurotrohpins for hearing loss; other conditions like cystic fibrosis have been found to respond to gene therapy.
Other uses of bionic technology are more extensive than you may realize: from re-growing bone cells to re-establishing lost sight to an artificial pancreas. With time, there will be more and more people who will benefit from these breakthroughs.