Mention scaffolds, nanotechnology, and cells and I think of tissue engineering. Michael Berger’s March 2, 2012 Spotlight essay, Exploring the complexity of nanomaterial-neural interfaces, on Nanowerk mentions all three. From the essay,
Carbon nanotubes, like the nervous cells of our brain, are excellent electrical signal conductors and can form intimate mechanical contacts with cellular membranes, thereby establishing a functional link to neuronal structures. …
Now, researchers have, for the first time, explored the impact of carbon nanotube scaffolds on multilayered neuronal networks. Up to now, all known effects of carbon nanotubes on neurons – namely their reported ability to potentiate neuronal signaling and synapses – have been described in bi-dimensional cultured networks where nanotube/neuron hybrids were developed on a monolayer of dissociated brain cells.
In their work, a team of scientists in Italy, led by professors Maurizio Prato and Laura Ballerini, used slices from the spinal cords of mice to model multilayer-tissue complexity. They interfaced these spinal segments to multi-walled carbon nanotube (MWCNT) scaffolds for weeks at a time to see whether and how the interactions at the monolayer level are translated to multilayered nerve tissues.
I found this part of the explanation a little easier to understand,
According to the team, interfacing spinal cord explants [cells removed from living tissue and cultivated in artificial media] to purified carbon nanotubes over a longer period (weeks) induces two major effects: First, the number and length of neuronal fibers outgrowing the spinal segment increases, associated with changes in growth cone activity and in fiber elastomechanical properties. And, secondly, the researchers point out that after weeks of MWCNT interfacing, neurons located at as far as five cell layers from the substrate display an increased efficacy in synaptic responses – which could represent either an improvement or a pathological behavior – presumably mediated by ongoing plasticity driven by the neuron/MWCNT hybrids.
If this increased efficacy in synaptic responses should represent an improvement, it suggests to me that it could be helpful with spinal cord injuries at some point. The researchers themselves are not speculating that far into the future (from the Berger essay),
They [Prato and Ballerini] note that this is important because it exploits the design of artificial micro- and nanoscale devices that cooperate with neuronal network activity, thereby creating hybrid structures able to cross the barriers between artificial devices and neurons.
Taken in conjunction with today’s (March 5, 2012) earlier posting (Carbon and neural implants), it seems that there is a great deal of work being done to integrate ‘machine’ and flesh so we achieve machine/flesh. While I don’t believe that philosopher and chemist Isabelle Stengers will be addressing those specific issues in her talk, Cosmopolitics, being livestreamed here later today (3:30 pm PST) from Halifax (Nova Scotia), she does touch on this,
Professor Stengers’ keynote address will examine sciences and the consequences of what has been called progress. Is it possible to reclaim modern practices, to have them actively taking into account what they felt entitled to ignore in the name of progress? Or else, can they learn to “think with” instead of define and judge? [emphasis mine]
I don’t know what she means by ‘think with’ but it strikes me that it represents a significant shift of thought as it implies a relationship that is not separated (or bounded) in the ways we have traditionally observed. Defining and judging are made possible by the notion of separation (boundaries); machine and flesh have been viewed from the perspective of boundaries and separation; machine/flesh seems more like ‘thinking with’.