Your chances of getting a nasty migraine increase following a spinal cord injury, thanks to a chemical messenger in the brain that spikes to toxic levels, past studies have suggested. For treatment to get any better, researchers need to catch that split-second spike in action and closely follow its path of destruction. National Science Foundation-funded engineers have built a tiny, flexible sensor that is faster and more precise than past attempts at tracking this chemical, called glutamate. The sensor, an implantable device on the spinal cord, is primarily a research tool for testing in animal models, but could find future clinical use as a way to monitor whether a drug for neurotrauma or brain disease is working. Impact, such as from a car accident or tackle in football, can injure the spinal cord -- also injuring the nerve structures that transport glutamate, which sends signals to excite nerve tissue for performing functions such as learning and memorizing. Damaged nerve structures means that loads of glutamate leak out into spaces outside of cells, over-exciting and damaging them. Brain diseases, including Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, also show elevated levels of glutamate. Devices so far either haven't been sensitive enough to detect glutamate, fast enough to capture its spike or affordable enough for long-term research projects.
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