Plenty of exciting neuroscience research happens at Halifax's Brain Repair Centre. One of the latest studies puts the focus on muscles.

“We set out to discover a new way to control muscles that have been disconnected from the nervous system,” says Dr. Victor Rafuse, director of Halifax's Brain Repair Centre and a professor of medical neuroscience at Dalhousie University.

That new way is light thearpy.

Rafuse and his collaborator tested their theory by inserting a light-activated gene, found in green algae, into mice and shining a blue LED light on their muscles.

“What we found was that light was extremely efficient in controlling these muscles, and in fact, what we found we can disconnect the muscle from the nervous system,” says Rafuse. “Typically when you do that the muscle shrivels up and atrophies, but if you activate them for an hour a day, you can prevent the atrophy from happening with light and actually you can control them very, very efficiently.”

Dr. Rafuse says the focus of the study was on an important group of muscles.

“So the muscles we're interested in controlling are skeleto muscles, which are the muscles that are used for walking, and grasping, and smiling and breathing,” says Rafuse.

These muscles can be disconnected from the nervous system as a result of a spinal cord injury, or motor-neuron diseases like ALS. This discovery could potentially help restore lost muscle function in those patients.

“For example, somebody with a spinal cord injury whose nerves that controls the hands died, we could theoretically have them wear a glove with simple lights on it and by activating lights in different patterns they could be able to open or close their hands,” says Rafuse. “Potentially, somebody who has motor-neuron disease, such as ALS, where they're losing their ability to breathe, if you could express this light activated channel in the muscles that allow you to breathe, you might be able to augment their breathing with light.”

The findings of this study have just been published in one of the world’s most prominent scientific journals, Nature Communications.