Although light signals have previously been transmitted to nerve cells using silicon (whose ability to turn light into electricity is employed in solar cells and in the imaging sensors of video cameras), nanoengineered materials promise far greater efficiency and versatility.
"It should be possible for us to tune the electrical characteristics of these nanoparticle films to get properties like color sensitivity and differential stimulation, the sort of things you want if you're trying to make an artificial retina, which is one of the ultimate goals of this project," Pappas said. "You can't do that with silicon. Plus, silicon is a bulk material — silicon devices are much less size-compatible with cells."
The researchers caution that despite the great potential of a light-sensitive nanoparticle-neuron interface, creating an actual implantable artificial retina is a long-range project. But they're equally hopeful about a variety of other, less complex applications made possible by a tiny, versatile light-activated interface with nerve cells — such things as new ways to connect with artificial limbs and other prostheses, and revolutionary new tools for imaging, diagnosis and therapy.
"The beauty of this achievement is that these materials can be remotely activated without having to use wires to connect them. All you have to do is deliver light to the material," said Professor Massoud Motamedi, director of UTMB's Center for Biomedical Engineering and a co-author of the paper. "This type of technology has the ability to provide non-invasive connections between the human nervous system and prostheses and instruments that are unprecedented in their flexibility, compactness and reliability," Motamedi continued. "I feel that such nanotools are going to give the fields of medicine and biology brand-new capabilities that it's hard to even imagine now."