Transparent blue image of human heart with monitored beat, which can be abnormal in people with long QT syndrome
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A tiny light-triggered device that is thinner than a human hair can be used to control electrical activity in the body like cardiac pacemakers, according to research from the University of Chicago.

The research, published in Nature, is still at an early stage, but the team behind the technology think it could go on to replace devices such as pacemakers, which can control heart beat rhythm, or be used to help people with epilepsy or other brain disorders that can benefit from electrical stimulation.

“The early experiments have been very successful, and we’re really hopeful about the future for this translational technology,” said Pengju Li, a graduate student at the University of Chicago and first author on the paper, in a press statement.

The device Li and colleagues created has an optical fiber that lights up in a precise pattern and a specialized silicon-based material that can read the light emission and create localized electrical pulses as a result.

Lead author on the paper Bozhi Tian, a professor at the University of Chicago, has been developing light-triggered devices for medical use for several years. These devices use photovoltaic technology like that used in solar panels but are a lot smaller and more precise.

“In a solar cell, you want to collect as much sunlight as possible and move that energy along the cell no matter what part of the panel is struck,” explained Li. “But for this application, you want to be able to shine a light at a very localized area and activate only that one area.”

A big advantage of this technology, which may eventually lead to it replacing currently used devices like pacemakers, is that it is very small and flexible, contains no leads or moving parts and could be inserted into the body in a minimally invasive way.

The current prototype also does not need to be removed, as it is designed to dissolve over time and breakdown into silicic acid, which is harmless to the body. While this means the current version is short lived, the researchers say that they can change the lifespan of the material to accommodate different treatment needs.

During the research, the team tested their device in cardiac cells in culture, in a rat heart model in the lab and in live mice and pigs. In a pig, the device was able to control heart rhythm in a similar way to a pacemaker device implanted to help restore normal heart rhythm in people with cardiac rhythm disorders.

“This advancement is a game-changer in cardiac resynchronization therapy,” said Narutoshi Hibino, professor of surgery at the University of Chicago Medicine and co-corresponding author on the study. “We’re at the cusp of a new frontier where bioelectronics can seamlessly integrate with the body’s natural functions.”

Although the current tests of the device have been focused on cardiovascular uses such as replacing pacemakers, this technology could also be used to treat neurological problems such as epilepsy, pain and movement disorders according to the authors.

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