New mechanical way to stimulate neurons

Until now, the body's neural cell responses to mechanical effects have been difficult for researchers to study because there has been no easily controllable method for inducing such mechanical stimulation of the cells. Now, a group of researchers at MIT and elsewhere, including Professor Polina Anikeeva, have found a new method for doing just that. 

The finding might offer a step toward new kinds of therapeutic treatments, similar to electrically based neurostimulation that has been used to treat Parkinson’s disease and other conditions. Unlike those systems, which require an external wire connection, the new system would be completely contact-free after an initial injection of particles, and could be reactivated at will through an externally applied magnetic field.

The key to the new process was developing minuscule discs with an unusual magnetic property, which can cause them to start fluttering when subjected to a certain kind of varying magnetic field. Though the particles themselves are only 100 or so nanometers across, roughly a hundredth of the size of the neurons they are trying to stimulate, they can be made and injected in great quantities, so that collectively their effect is strong enough to activate the cell’s pressure receptors.