Updated 14 February 2019

Researchers shine light on incontinence issues - literally

Researchers are using optogenetics — "light therapy" — to solve incontinence issues.

Incontinence is the umbrella term for people suffering from bladder control issues.

According to the Global Forum on Incontinence, 8.7% of the world’s population suffers from incontinence. Women are more likely to suffer from the disorder than men, and 12.4% of women are affected, compared to only 8% of men.

Researchers are now literally shining a light on issues of bladder control and dysfunction, as the science of optogenetics has made significant strides over the last couple of years.

Optogenetics or "light therapy" is the process of using light to influence or control genetically modified cells.

Hyperactive bladder signals

Hyperactivity of brain-to-bladder signals are most commonly the cause of urinary incontinence.

A new study shows how researchers made use of light-emitting diodes (LEDs) in order to stimulate the nerves in the bladders of rats suffering from bladder control issues. Researchers from Washington University developed a device that, when implanted in the bladder of the animal, is able to stimulate and influence the nerves of the bladder.

The device is made up of a small metal ring, green LED lights and a control centre. It also has a small battery that can be charged wirelessly.

According to the study, the device is able to detect when changes occur in the bladder. It also detects when the animal experiences frequent urination. Cells within the animal’s bladder were genetically modified to be sensitive to light. When the device detects changes in the bladder, the LED lights switch on. These lights then act upon the modified cells and prevent the urination signals from reaching the brain.

Current situation

This kind of technology can change the way incontinence is treated.

Currently many women are subjected to vaginal mesh surgery in an attempt to solve the issue of incontinence. This surgery has, however, left some women suffering from extreme abdominal and nerve pain. In some instances the lives of patients were jeopardised due to infection.

Other forms of treatment involve electric stimuli, where an electric current is targeted at the parts of the body involved with brain-to-bladder signalling. The downside of this approach is that these currents tend to also affect other parts of the body, potentially causing harm.

According to Robert Gereau, one of the researchers of the optogenetics study, “Bladder function is quite similar between rat and human… But before the device can be developed for possible human use, some modifications will be required. Because the human bladder is thicker, red lights which penetrate further into tissue may be needed instead.”

Image credit: iStock 


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Incontinence Expert

Dr Prenevin Govender completed his MBChB at the University of Cape Town in 2001. He obtained his Fellowship of the College of Urologists in 2009 and graduated with distinction for a Masters in Medicine from the University of Cape Town in 2010. His special interests include laparoscopic, pelvic organ prolapse and urinary incontinence surgery. He consults full-time at Life Kingsbury Hospital in Claremont.

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