Viral-Mediated Optogenetic Stimulation of Peripheral Motor Nerves in Non-human Primates

Front Neurosci. 2019 Jul 31:13:759. doi: 10.3389/fnins.2019.00759. eCollection 2019.


Objective: Reanimation of muscles paralyzed by disease states such as spinal cord injury remains a highly sought therapeutic goal of neuroprosthetic research. Optogenetic stimulation of peripheral motor nerves expressing light-sensitive opsins is a promising approach to muscle reanimation that may overcome several drawbacks of traditional methods such as functional electrical stimulation (FES). However, the utility of these methods has only been demonstrated in rodents to date, while translation to clinical practice will likely first require demonstration and refinement of these gene therapy techniques in non-human primates. Approach: Three rhesus macaques were injected intramuscularly with either one or both of two optogenetic constructs (AAV6-hSyn-ChR2-eYFP and/or AAV6-hSyn-Chronos-eYFP) to transduce opsin expression in the corresponding nerves. Neuromuscular junctions were targeted for virus delivery using an electrical stimulating injection technique. Functional opsin expression was periodically evaluated up to 13 weeks post-injection by optically stimulating targeted nerves with a 472 nm fiber-coupled laser while recording electromyographic (EMG) responses. Main Results: One monkey demonstrated functional expression of ChR2 at 8 weeks post-injection in each of two injected muscles, while the second monkey briefly exhibited contractions coupled to optical stimulation in a muscle injected with the Chronos construct at 10 weeks. A third monkey injected only in one muscle with the ChR2 construct showed strong optically coupled contractions at 5 ½ weeks which then disappeared by 9 weeks. EMG responses to optical stimulation of ChR2-transduced nerves demonstrated graded recruitment relative to both stimulus pulse-width and light intensity, and followed stimulus trains up to 16 Hz. In addition, the EMG response to prolonged stimulation showed delayed fatigue over several minutes. Significance: These results demonstrate the feasibility of viral transduction of peripheral motor nerves for functional optical stimulation of motor activity in non-human primates, a variable timeline of opsin expression in a animal model closer to humans, and fundamental EMG response characteristics to optical nerve stimulation. Together, they represent an important step in translating these optogenetic techniques as a clinically viable gene therapy.

Keywords: functional optical stimulation; muscle control; neural prosthetics; neurostimulation; optogenetics; peripheral nerve stimulation; tissue clearing.