Using pulsed magnetic fields to fight the neurode

image: In the cell culture experiment: Disrupted motor neurons of ALS patients are stimulated by magnetic pulses (coil top left) and regain their original performance with respect to mitochondrial transport velocity as well as the rate growth of appendages.
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Credit: HZDR/Sahneweiss

In motor neuron diseases of the nervous system, such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), commands can no longer be sent to muscles. This gradually leads to paralysis. Physicist Dr. Thomas Herrmannsdörfer from the German national laboratory Helmholtz-Zentrum Dresden-Rossendorf (HZDR) and physician Prof. Richard Funk from TU Dresden formulated the idea of ​​selectively reviving motor neurons using magnetic fields. The first results of the laboratory research proved them right and encouraged them to pursue their project and plan a prototype therapeutic installation.

In healthy people, so-called motor neurons – special nerve cells in the cerebral cortex, brainstem and spinal cord – signal skeletal muscles to move. With ALS, these neurons are severely damaged and no longer transmit signals. As a result, the muscles gradually dry out because they don’t receive instructions and can no longer function. The first symptoms are usually problems with the arms and legs and in some patients the disease is also manifested by speech disorders or difficulty swallowing.

Although ALS has been known for about a hundred years, there has not yet been a prospect of a cure. Only drug therapies exist to relieve symptoms and slow the progression of the disease. The two scientists from Dresden, Richard Funk and Thomas Herrmannsdörfer, are now pursuing a completely new approach with their team. They want to reactivate motor neurons using magnetic field pulses.

Each human cell and all of its components, the cell organelles, have an electrical charge, an electrical potential. Research has meanwhile advanced to the point where changes in membrane potential can be imaged microscopically using electrosensitive dyes. This allows researchers to observe how cells as well as cell organelles communicate with each other based on their different electrical potentials. When the electric fields and therefore the associated communication fail, this leads to abnormal evolutions and, in the worst case, to faulty operation. “Because we know that electric currents flow, we also know that it must be possible to intervene selectively”, explains Richard Funk. Thus was born the idea of ​​intervening electromagnetically.

Petri dish studies

In order to test their approach, the two scientists have meanwhile trained a team of experienced cell biologists at HZDR to reprogram human skin cells into motor neurons. Researchers are using cells from healthy individuals as well as ALS patients. They also looked at samples of cells at different stages of the disease in cell cultures taken from ALS patients. The prepared cells were placed in Petri dishes and exposed to different magnetic fields. “We were able to show in our experiments that certain pulse and frequency parameters improve the transport in the nervous processes which is disturbed in ALS”, enthuses Herrmannsdörfer. For example, stimulation of mitochondrial transport has been observed, which is of crucial importance for neuronal function. Mitochondria are considered the powerhouses of cells and are responsible for the body’s energy supply. In addition, scientists were able to demonstrate that an accelerated growth of nervous processes is achieved by magnetic fields.

At least as surprising, however, is the result that although cells from ALS patients can be increased to the level of those from healthy individuals, the performance of cells from healthy people does not change significantly in the experience. In short, healthy cells remain constant. The diseased cells experience an increase in their performance to their previous level before they were affected by the disease.

Funk and Herrmannsdörfer know that there is still a long way to go despite these experimental results. “You have to take a deep breath and then think carefully about how to proceed. If this activation worked not only with the cells in the Petri dish, but also with living individuals, a better quality of life would really be possible for ALS patients. Until then, we have a lot of work to do,” says Funk.

Construction of a prototype magnetic pulse therapy installation

After their first successes in laboratory experiments, the two scientists and their interdisciplinary team from the Dresden High Magnetic Field Laboratory at HZDR are currently building a prototype magnetic pulse therapy setup with which they aim to test the method they developed under realistic conditions. The funds were provided by the Free State of Saxony and by the European Union, which is supporting the project with around €1.1 million from its Regional Development Fund (ERDF). In addition, a working title has already been selected: NeuroMaX.

Funk and Herrmannsdörfer’s idea is now receiving broad support. In addition to the project team consisting of scientists from Germany, Thailand, India and Japan, several other institutes and departments of HZDR, International University of Dresden and TU Dresden are involved in NeuroMaX. The goal is to develop a prototype and, in a later stage, to conduct studies that will ultimately be approved for use in patients.

For the first time, this raises the prospect that regeneration of disease-related nerve damage in humans might be possible. Knowledge so far suggests that perhaps other neurodegenerative diseases beyond ALS will also respond to pulsed magnetic field therapy. It sounds like a distant dream, but perhaps this new therapeutic approach has other fields of application in medical science.

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