Tiny Robotic Nerve Cuffs Promise Breakthrough in Neurocare

Summary: Researchers developed innovative, flexible devices that can gently wrap around nerve fibers, potentially transforming the diagnosis and treatment of neurological disorders. These tiny, flexible “nerve cuffs” employ soft robotics and flexible electronics to interface with peripheral nerves without causing damage.

Tested successfully in rats, these cuffs adjust their shape with minimal voltage, eliminating the need for surgical sutures or glues. This breakthrough could lead to less invasive treatments for conditions like epilepsy, chronic pain, and could improve the control of prosthetic limbs.


  1. Advanced Materials: The nerve cuffs are made from conducting polymers used in soft robotics, allowing them to expand or contract around nerve fibers with just a few hundred millivolts of electricity.
  2. Non-Invasive Application: The cuffs can be rolled into a needle and injected near the target nerve, where they then self-adjust to wrap around the nerve, facilitating minimally invasive placement.
  3. Future Potential: The technology could allow for highly targeted neurological treatments without the need for open surgery and is even envisioned to navigate to hard-to-reach areas inside the body.

Source: University of Cambridge

Researchers have developed tiny, flexible devices that can wrap around individual nerve fibers without damaging them.

The researchers, from the University of Cambridge, combined flexible electronics and soft robotics techniques to develop the devices, which could be used for the diagnosis and treatment of a range of disorders, including epilepsy and chronic pain, or the control of prosthetic limbs.

Current tools for interfacing with the peripheral nerves—the 43 pairs of motor and sensory nerves that connect the brain and the spinal cord—are outdated, bulky and carry a high risk of nerve injury. However, the robotic nerve “cuffs” developed by the Cambridge team are sensitive enough to grasp or wrap around delicate nerve fibers without causing any damage.

This shows a brain.
For example, they might help relieve pain by blocking pain signals, or they could be used to restore movement in paralyzed limbs by sending electrical signals to the nerves. Credit: Neuroscience News

Tests of the nerve cuffs in rats showed that the devices only require tiny voltages to change shape in a controlled way, forming a self-closing loop around nerves without the need for surgical sutures or glues.

The researchers say the combination of soft electrical actuators with neurotechnology could be an answer to minimally invasive monitoring and treatment for a range of neurological conditions.

The results are reported in the journal Nature Materials.

Electric nerve implants can be used to either stimulate or block signals in target nerves. For example, they might help relieve pain by blocking pain signals, or they could be used to restore movement in paralyzed limbs by sending electrical signals to the nerves.

Nerve monitoring is also standard surgical procedure when operating in areas of the body containing a high concentration of nerve fibers, such as anywhere near the spinal cord.

These implants allow direct access to nerve fibers, but they come with certain risks. “Nerve implants come with a high risk of nerve injury,” said Professor George Malliaras from Cambridge’s Department of Engineering, who led the research.

“Nerves are small and highly delicate, so anytime you put something large, like an electrode, in contact with them, it represents a danger to the nerves.”

“Nerve cuffs that wrap around nerves are the least invasive implants currently available, but despite this they are still too bulky, stiff and difficult to implant, requiring significant handling and potential trauma to the nerve,” said co-author Dr. Damiano Barone from Cambridge’s Department of Clinical Neurosciences.

The researchers designed a new type of nerve cuff made from conducting polymers, normally used in soft robotics. The ultra-thin cuffs are engineered in two separate layers. Applying tiny amounts of electricity—just a few hundred millivolts—causes the devices to swell or shrink.

The cuffs are small enough that they could be rolled up into a needle and injected near the target nerve. When activated electrically, the cuffs will change their shape to wrap around the nerve, allowing nerve activity to be monitored or altered.

“To ensure the safe use of these devices inside the body, we have managed to reduce the voltage required for actuation to very low values,” said Dr. Chaoqun Dong, the paper’s first author.

“What’s even more significant is that these cuffs can change shape in both directions and be reprogrammed. This means surgeons can adjust how tightly the device fits around a nerve until they get the best results for recording and stimulating the nerve.”

Tests in rats showed that the cuffs could be successfully placed without surgery, and they formed a self-closing loop around the target nerve. The researchers are planning further testing of the devices in animal models, and are hoping to begin testing in humans within the next few years.

“Using this approach, we can reach nerves that are difficult to reach through open surgery, such as the nerves that control, pain, vision or hearing, but without the need to implant anything inside the brain,” said Barone. “The ability to place these cuffs so they wrap around the nerves makes this a much easier procedure for surgeons, and it’s less risky for patients.”

“The ability to make an implant that can change shape through electrical activation opens up a range of future possibilities for highly targeted treatments,” said Malliaras.

“In future, we might be able to have implants that can move through the body, or even into the brain—it makes you dream how we could use technology to benefit patients in future.”

About this neurotech, robotics, and neurology research news

Author: George Malliaras
Source: University of Cambridge
Contact: George Malliaras – University of Cambridge
Image: The image is credited to Neuroscience News

Original Research: Open access.
Electrochemically actuated microelectrodes for minimally invasive peripheral nerve interfaces” by George Malliaras et al. Nature Materials


Electrochemically actuated microelectrodes for minimally invasive peripheral nerve interfaces

Electrode arrays that interface with peripheral nerves are used in the diagnosis and treatment of neurological disorders; however, they require complex placement surgeries that carry a high risk of nerve injury.

Here we leverage recent advances in soft robotic actuators and flexible electronics to develop highly conformable nerve cuffs that combine electrochemically driven conducting-polymer-based soft actuators with low-impedance microelectrodes.

Driven with applied voltages as small as a few hundreds of millivolts, these cuffs allow active grasping or wrapping around delicate nerves. We validate this technology using in vivo rat models, showing that the cuffs form and maintain a self-closing and reliable bioelectronic interface with the sciatic nerve of rats without the use of surgical sutures or glues.

This seamless integration of soft electrochemical actuators with neurotechnology offers a path towards minimally invasive intraoperative monitoring of nerve activity and high-quality bioelectronic interfaces.

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