People who suffer severe spinal cord injuries and subsequent paralysis often lose bladder control too. But a new electronic device may restore that bodily function. British neuroscientist James Fawcett and his colleagues have developed a neuroprosthetic device that replaces damaged nerves that convey the bladder's sense of fullness. The device also blocks or triggers bladder emptying on cue through electrical stimulation. Fawcett and his team successfully demonstrated the technology in rats and published their results yesterday in Science Translational Medicine.
In a normal bladder, nerves sense when the bladder begins to fill up and electrochemically send a message to the brain. When the signals say it's time to go, the bladder contracts, the sphincter relaxes, and presto: urination. But a spinal cord injury can disrupt the signals to the brain and eliminate the fullness sensation and muscle control. A person with this kind of injury is forced to empty his bladder with a catheter.
In Fawcett's design, parts of the spinal nerves called dorsal roots are teased out into rootlets; the rootlets are placed in an implanted microchannel electrode interface. The microchannels record signals from the nerves and can determine, by the amount of activity, when the bladder is getting full. A stimulator connected to the nerves sends high-frequency stimulation to stop the bladder from emptying itself. When the user is ready to urinate, he or she can push a button that causes the device to deliver low-frequency stimulation that allows the bladder to empty. The researchers envision a handheld device that buzzes to let the user know it's time to go. (Parents: wouldn't it be great to have a buzzer like that for potty training preschoolers?)
Of course it will be a while before the device is ready for humans. In the rat experiments, the rootlets only survived for a few months after they were placed in the microchannels. That lifespan will have to be increased considerably before the device would be useful in humans, the authors said.
In a separate approach, researchers at the University of Louisville have been experimenting with epidural stimulation of the spinal cord to restore bladder control and other functions in people with spinal cord injuries. The work has been largely successful, but experiments have only been completed in a few people.
Illustration: Evangelos Delivopoulos
Emily Waltz is a contributing editor at Spectrum covering the intersection of technology and the human body. Her favorite topics include electrical stimulation of the nervous system, wearable sensors, and tiny medical robots that dive deep into the human body. She has been writing for Spectrum since 2012, and for the Nature journals since 2005. Emily has a master's degree from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and an undergraduate degree from Vanderbilt University. She aims to say something true and useful in every story she writes. Contact her via @EmWaltz on Twitter or through her website.