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Gizmorama - April 27, 2016

Good Morning,

Managing pain with pills might become a thing of the past. A study at McGill University has shown that light could be an effective treatment for those with chronic pain. That sounds light a bright idea to me!

Learn about this and more interesting stories from the scientific community in today's issue.

Until Next Time,

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*-- Scientists create first quantum cascade laser on silicon --*

WASHINGTON - Researchers have managed to install a laser directly on a silicon chip, a breakthrough that could bolster a variety of technologies, including gas sensors and space communication systems.

Scientists have previously integrated diode lasers and silicon chips, but diode lasers aren't able to generate beams at longer wavelengths, diminishing their potential applications.

To improve upon the technology, researchers turned to quantum cascade lasers. The transition brought new problems, however. Previous laser-silicon marriages used silicon dioxide in the integration component known as the waveguide. Silicon Dioxide absorbs longer wavelengths, inhibiting laser beam production.

The research team designed a new waveguide, using a layer of silicon nitride to insulate the new laser from the silicon dioxide.

"Traditionally, silicon photonic devices operate at near-infrared wavelengths, with applications in data transmission and telecommunications," lead researcher Alexander Spott, with the University of California, Santa Barbara, said in a news release.

"However, there is emerging research interest in building these silicon photonic devices for longer mid-infrared wavelengths," Spott continued, "for a range of sensing and detection applications, such as chemical bond spectroscopy, gas sensing, astronomy, oceanographic sensing, thermal imaging, explosive detection, and free-space communications."

As currently configured, the laser uses a lot of energy and wastes a lot of heat all for the production of a relatively weak laser beam. The scientists are now working on improving their prototype.

"We generally hope to improve the design to get higher powers and efficiency," Spott said. "This brings us closer to building fully integrated mid-infrared devices on a silicon chip, such as spectrometers or gas sensors."

Still, if the laser's performance improves, the researchers believe their technology could be quickly scaled for use in the real world.

"Silicon is inexpensive, the fabrication can be scaled up to significantly reduce the cost of individual chips, and many small devices can be built on the same silicon chip -- for example multiple different types of sensors operating at different mid-infrared wavelengths," Spott added.

Spott and his colleagues presented their research this week in Washington, D.C. at the annual Optical Society meeting.

*-- Light may be effective treatment for chronic pain, study says --*

MONTREAL - With opioid dependency and misuse issues continuing to grow nationwide, researchers are looking to non-opioid options for pain control -- including light.

Researchers at McGill University in Canada reduced pain in mice by shining light on the affected area using a technique called optogenetics, according to a study published in the journal eNeuro.

Optogenetics uses light to control neurons, in the case of pain by turning them off when light shines on them. Researchers think the non-invasive specificity of using light, as well as eliminating concerns about opioid drug dependency for people using the drugs over long periods of time, could be a better method for controlling chronic pain.

While the technology is not at a point that researchers think it is applicable to humans, they envision methods by which it could be used.

"Chronic pain is an increasingly big problem clinically and for many years we've relied only on opiates," Philippe Séguéla, a researcher at the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital, said in a press release. "It's hard to treat because of tolerance, making it necessary to increase dosages, which leads to serious side effects. Optogenetic therapy could be a highly effective way to relieve chronic pain while avoiding the side effects of traditional pain medication."

For the study, researchers bred mice with a light-sensitive trait making peripheral neurons, called Nav 1.8+ nociceptors, release proteins that react to light. Shining yellow light on these neurons shuts them off, decreasing sensitivity to touch and heat.

The researchers found shining light decreased pain, suggesting an on-demand system of pain management could be possible, without the potential for drug dependency.

Although the researchers said it may be possible to use a harmless virus to change neurons in the body and make them sensitive to light, however further technological and neuroscientific research is necessary before optogenetics can be tested in humans, they said.


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