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Light pulse treatment makes paralysed muscles move again

© Barney Bryson, UCL

By Ellie Buchdahl at Education UK, 23 April 2014 

UK research labs are at the forefront of innovative neuroscience. We meet a researcher from Germany and a student from Poland who are part of work that could change the lives of paralysed people.

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Light pulses could help paralysed patients move again, thanks to pioneering work by scientists in the UK.

Researchers at two universities have developed artificial motor neurons that are especially designed to react when light is directed at them, meaning injured nerves connect with muscles and get them moving again.

The findings could change the lives of patients with diseases such as motor neurone disease – and treatments using the new method could be just a few years away, scientists say.

© Barney Bryson, UCL
Vital change: Neurons outside the body are altered so that they react to light

Dr Ivo Lieberam from the MRC Centre for Developmental Neurobiology at King’s College London, who carried out the study with Professor Linda Greensmith from the University College London Institute of Neurology, said: ‘We hope that within five years we will be able to produce a prototype to test, and then clinical trials can follow from that.’

‘Life-saving and life-enhancing’

The new technique allows scientists to create ‘pacemaker’-like apparatus to help with breathing similar apparatus for swallowing is in the pipeline.

© Barney Bryson, UCL
Breathe easy: The process was trialled on mouse muscles (left) and the first human trials (right) will focus on muscles involved with breathing

While ‘allowing people to walk again’ might be ‘several decades away’, according to Dr Lieberam, giving patients back even their most basic functions will have an instant impact.

‘It’s not just that these are vital functions,’ Dr Lieberam said. ‘Parents with these conditions will suddenly be able to engage with their children again and see them grow. It’s both life-saving and life-enhancing.’

Funding real-life cures

Dr Lieberam comes from Germany and has worked in the UK for five years.

‘The UK is very conducive to innovative, practical research that has a real impact,’ he said.

© Barney Bryson, UCL
Trigger and response: The artificial stem cells react to light and make the muscles move

‘I have been generously funded by the Medical Research Council and by various charities, including a grant for this research project from the Thierry Latran Foundation.

‘So far, I’ve found that if you’re doing something that’s beneficial to society, the funding is not so hard to get.

‘I like the intellectual atmosphere here too,’ he added. ‘It’s a relaxed, less formal environment, and there is a lot of scope for collaboration.’

Meet the student: Magdalena Nowak, 25, from Poland

© Magdalena NowakMagdalena did her neuroscience BSc at King’s College London with Dr Lieberam. Her project  to direct stem cell differention into a  specific type of nerve cell called a sympathetic neuron put her at the cutting edge of work aiming to reconstruct diseased or injured  nervous systems.

Magdalena has now embarked on a four-year DPhil in Neuroscience at the University of Oxford, funded by the Wellcome Trust  one of the highest regarded scholarship programmes in the world.

'I chose to study in the UK because of its high standard of education, cutting-edge science facilities and a broad range of study programmes offered by many universities in the UK. Additionally, studying and living in the UK was an excellent opportunity to improve  my language skills and experience cultural diversity.

'My BSc with Dr Lieberam was a great learning experience in an area of research that is only just starting to be explored. I had the  opportunity to gain hands-on experience, and benefited from excellent supervision and an intellectually stimulating environment.

'Outside of my direct studies I was able to organise Brain Awareness Week at King’s College London, to inspire high school students to learn about the astonishing complexity of the human brain and the importance of brain research.

'It was an incredibly successful event, allowing me and other students to share our knowledge and interest in the brain and brain research with young audiences. I am very proud of what I have done.'

© Magdalena Nowak / King's College London
Future prospects: Magdalena talks to high school students at a workshop she organised about the brain

'The majority of universities in the UK are committed to rewarding excellence in students, regardless of nationality.

'The generous Wellcome Trust stipend for my postgraduate training at the University of Oxford has also made a great difference for me, and during my BSc I obtained a number of scholarships based on academic performance.

'These awards have not only made me feel a sense of accomplishment but were also a great financial help.

'Studying in the UK has not only led to the qualifications that have made a real difference to my career prospects, but has opened a world of opportunities for my education.

'Would I recommend studying in the UK? Absolutely.'

© Magdalena Nowak / King's College London
Brain awareness: Magdalena found it very rewarding to speak to students about her work

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