Optical signals could be used instead of electrical signals to stimulate cells in the body, scientists say. In a new study, researchers at the University of Utah used brief, low-power light pulses to control the actions of inner-ear cells, potentially leading to therapies that let those with auditory disorders hear the light.
The team also used light to make heart cells contract. Their findings could someday be used to improve inner-ear implants for deafness and movement disorders; retinal implants that could use infrared pulses to stimulate the optic nerve; and even light-based pacemakers.Infrared light can penetrate tissue, so optical implants would not have to touch the brain or connect directly to nerves, according to Richard Rabbitt, a bioengineering professor and senior author of the heart-cell and inner-ear-cell studies. “You will be able to implant optical devices and leave them there for life,” he said in a University of Utah news release.