Could biohybrid robots be used to study diseases of the peripheral nervous system?

Written by Alice Bough (Future Science Group)

A research team from the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign (IL, USA) has developed a biohybrid robot that exhibits behavior similar to that of the peripheral nervous system (PNS). This technology could be used to study the progression of various diseases affecting the PNS.

Biohybrid robots, consisting of a combination of organic and artificial materials, can mimic the activities of living biological systems.

In the study, published in APL Bioengineering, a biohybrid robot consisting of an intact rat spinal cord and a tissue-engineered 3D muscle system was developed.

It was demonstrated that the spinal cord was still able to function outside of an in vivo system. Following 1 week of culture, it was observed that the motor neurons from the spinal cord could electrically stimulate the artificial muscles, causing them to contract.

“When we looked more deeply at how the neuron–muscle interface developed, we were very excited to observe many similarities between our tissue-engineered spinobot and in vivo development,” explained lead author, Collin Kaufman (University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign).

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The properties of the biohybrid robot system were further investigated by manipulation of neurotransmitter levels. The addition of certain neurotransmitters made the contractions more even patterned and consistent, while removal of neurotransmitters caused contractions to decrease.

The authors hope that their biohybrid robot system can be used to study PNS diseases such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis without using in vivo models.

“The next steps to studying such a disease are surprisingly close,” commented Kaufman. “By replacing the muscle, the spinal cord, or any combination of the two tissues with an [amyotrophic lateral sclerosis] mutant model, researchers would be able to study how diseased neurons interact with nearby muscles.”

This biohybrid robot technology could also be used to test potential treatment options or even as a surgical training tool.

“The future applications of this technology are only beginning to be understood, and we expect many great things from this area in the next few years,” concluded senior author, Martha Gillette (University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign).

Sources: Kaufman CD, Liu SC, Cvetkovic C et al. Emergence of functional neuromuscular junctions in an engineered, multicellular spinal cord-muscle bioactuator. APL Bioeng. doi:10.1063/1.5121440 (2020) (Epub ahead of print);

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