New process allows researchers to study nitric oxide inside the body

Nitric oxide is an important signaling molecule in the body, with a role in building nervous system connections that contribute to learning and memory. It also functions as a messenger in the cardiovascular and immune systems.

But as it is a gas, it has been difficult for researchers to study exactly what its role is in these systems and how it functions. Now, a team of scientists and engineers, including Professors Polina Anikeeva and Yoel Fink, has found a way of generating the gas at precisely targeted locations inside the body, potentially opening new lines of research on this essential molecule’s effects.

The team’s solution uses an electric voltage to drive the reaction that produces nitric oxide. This is similar to what is happening on a much larger scale with some industrial electrochemical production processes, which are relatively modular and controllable, enabling local and on-demand chemical synthesis.

The team’s key achievement was finding a way for this kind of electrochemically controlled reaction to be operated efficiently and selectively at the nanoscale. That required finding a suitable catalyst material that could generate nitric oxide from a benign precursor material. They found that nitrite offered a promising precursor for electrochemical nitric oxide generation.

“This work is a milestone in bioelectronics,” says Bozhi Tian, an associate professor of chemistry at the University of Chicago, who was not connected to this work. “It integrates nanoenabled catalysis, microfluidics, and traditional bioelectronics … and it solves a longstanding challenge of precise neuromodulation in the brain, by in situ generation of signaling molecules. This approach can be widely adopted by the neuroscience community and can be generalized to other signaling systems, too.”