SickScience is a column dedicated to astonishing advancements across the continuum of discovery. In today’s vernacular, “sick” can be synonymous with cool, disgusting, ill, even all three at once – making it the perfect adjective for modern miracles. Check out The Hook Up for all the sickest sights of science.
Remember the final scene in The Empire Strikes Back, where Luke Skywalker is being fitted with a cybernetic hand? Flash forward 32 years from second Star Wars installment’s release, and you may instead see Luke rummaging around the depths of Cloud City for those lightsaber-wielding digits of his.
Just two days before the New England Patriots receivers displayed terrible tactile ability in the Super Bowl (read: Gisele Bündchen – “My husband can not f—— throw the ball and catch the ball at the same time”), the Journal of Neuroscience Research published a breakthrough nerve repair study that may come in handy should the Brazilian bombshell ever go Darth Vader on the boys in blue.
The study, conducted at the University of Texas, could result in wildly successful reattachment surgeries by employing a procedure that mimics how bugs and other invertebrates regenerate axons, long projections of neurons that conduct the signals sent out by your brain. The scientists used sciatic nerves in rats as a model to show that their pioneering technique can repair severed nerves in minutes, and restore an astonishing 70-85% of normal nerve function within weeks or even days.
Here’s how it works. First, the severed ends of the axon’s membrane (the plasmalemma) are opened and frozen in place with an antioxidant cocktail containing methylene blue, a common scientific dye used to visualize the ends. Next, fantastically small microsutures (as small as 0.02 millimeters in diameter!) are used to loosely stitch the nerve endings together. Once that ultra-delicate sew job is complete, the connection is bathed in polyethylene glycol (PEG), freeing up the lipids inside the two membranes and causing them to flow into each other, a technique called “PEG-fusion.” Finally, any holes in the plasmalemma are patched using a calcium-containing saline solution. Dr. Frankenstein would’ve been so proud.
The cool part? This method can even counteract the effects of Wallerian degeneration, the corrosion of the severed ends that usually starts about 24 hours after an axon is cut. After all, the severed piece isn’t always able to be reattached quickly – just ask Lorena Bobbit’s husband.
“It can take nerve growths from proximal axonal stumps months or years to regenerate…often with less accuracy and with much less function being restored,” said professor George Bittner, the lead author of the report, in a Wiley.com press release. “We believe this procedure could produce a transformational change in the way nerve injuries are repaired.” Approval for clinical trials of the method are already being sought at Harvard and Vanderbilt Universities; with any luck, it will soon become the standard.
Hopefully in the future, here or in a galaxy far far away, your Skywalker moments will be swiftly stitched up – thanks to SickScience.