We have always worked with technology to aid in mobility. From crutches, wheelchairs, to prosthetic legs that enable those without a limb to run in the Paralympics. In the future, we envision developing this technology to grow artificial muscles.

A team of researchers from Freiburg University are developing artificial muscles that may result in improvements in medicine, prosthetics, and implants. They have created muscle tissue based on the natural protein elastin, which is present in human skin and blood vessels. This tissue can replace plastic, nylon, rubber, or waxy carbon nanotube-based muscles in prosthetics, implants, and robots. 

The artificial muscle might be connected to the nerve system and controlled by the electrical pulses that flow through the nerves.

The artificial muscle prototype responds to changes in the environment. A change in acidity at a temperature of 20 degrees celsius changes the direction in which the muscle contracts. So, for example, the muscle moves to the left for a basic environment, and to the right for an acidic environment. When the temperature decreases, it ‘resets’ the muscle to a relaxed state. This allows the muscle to be programmed to move in a certain direction in response to a certain stimulus. For the muscles to be able to operate in the body, however, they need to respond to other stimuli than acidity and temperature. Therefore, scientists are aiming to develop a newer version of the muscle that can be controlled by salt concentration or electricity. Eventually, the artificial muscle might be connected to the nerve system and controlled by the electrical pulses that flow through the nerves. 

The autonomous contractions of the material can be controlled with the help of pH and temperature changes. Source: Matthias Huber

Because elastin is already present in the human body, the material can safely be applied in humans as well as in other living organisms where artificial muscles might be a benefit. The muscle can become a part of prosthetic limbs, be the base for reconstructive medicine and also be the driving motor for nano-robots that need to get to a certain part of the body to deliver drugs. 

Artificial muscles can be used in tissue regeneration and for reconstructive medicine.

The muscles, similar to the muscles in our body, need fuel to move. Our bodily muscles are powered by a complex molecule called adenosine triphosphate (ATP). The current artificial muscle prototypes gain energy from another chemical: sodium sulfite. In the future, the researchers want the muscle to be able to operate on malic acid produced from biomass such as food and crop wastes. 

Ultimately, of course, the researchers aim to develop an artificial muscle that uses the same power source as our bodies, to fully be able to implement the muscle in implants and prosthetics. That would open up the possibility to use artificial muscles in tissue regeneration and for reconstructive medicine. Perhaps the muscle can be made in the shape of a human heart and replace human to human heart transplants. In blending this technology with the body, we are one step closer to improving quality of life for many people.

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