Researchers activate drugs inside mouse brains using microfiber tech

"Photoswitchable" drugs can be activated in the brain with the help of this miniature device.


The brain is a fascinating place. When nutrients or hormones and other elements enter our system, our brain has a lock-and-key mechanism that allows these materials to latch onto internal receptors and activate a series of intracellular effects. A team of researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU) collaborated under the leadership of MIT associate professor Polina Anikeeva to expedite this process of attaching drugs to receptors inside the brain and activating their properties. How? With the help of microfiber technology.

The miniature device used for this project initiates its activity once it is exposed to light. Fellow researcher and assistant professor at the OHSU, James Frank, noted in a press release that the existing lack of hardware for activating drugs through this method makes it difficult to reach different parts of the brain. The team successfully tested biocompatible, multi-use, and implantable fibers on mice. It's so small that a mouse can carry it inside its system for "many weeks." Here's what it looks.

Anikeeva Lab

For years now, researchers have attempted to improve microbot and similar miniature technology for the sake of drug delivery inside terribly confined and delicate routes like blood vessels. If mainstreamed, micro-machines could change the very face of drug administration.

How it works — Anikeeva and her team were able to create a miniature device with photoswitchable properties. This tiny little and light-sensitive device can be attached to drugs, which then can be activated with the help of a flashlight. It's particularly helpful for reaching the deeper and more complicated regions of the brain. While the approach might sound a bit alarming, it already exists under the medical domain of photopharmacology. In simple words, this kind of medical strategy relies on light-sensitive ways to shape and control neuronal activity in living brains.

Normally, it's hard to activate drugs through this method because it requires the simultaneous activation of both drug and light for it to work in the brain, especially if the target area is deep inside. But with the help of multifunctional fibers, Anikeeva and other researchers were able to develop and maintain a reliable optical wavelength between materials.

For their own project, the researchers used modified photoswitchable capsaicin. You're probably familiar with capsaicin as it is present in household edible items like hot peppers. There was a lot of binding involved between the capsaicin molecule and the sensory neurons inside the brain. Although the team focused on mice for their experiment, the findings could be a step toward human pharmaceutical applications down the line. If used moderately and carefully, it could make the process of drug transmission and activation a lot more convenient. Faster. Better. And subtle.