The National Institutes of Health recently increased those hopes by awarding a two-year, Small Business Innovation Research award jointly to Dr. De Luca's, biotech company, Altec, Inc., and Dr. Buccafusco's company, Prime Behavior Testing Laboratories.
Chemical warfare agents, insecticides and even some drugs for treating Alzheimer's disease work by inhibiting cholinesterase, an enzyme that breaks down acetylcholine, a key neurotransmitter in the body and brain involved in learning, memory and the neuromuscular system, Dr. Buccafusco said.
In fact, muscle contractions occur because a nerve triggers a muscle and it does that by releasing acetylcholine. "The reason you can move, say, your arm back and forth is because you have an enzyme called cholinesterase that's destroying acetylcholine virtually as it is being released," he said. "So you have this really sophisticated system that allows you to fire and relax in millisecond amounts of time."
The Germans actually developed chemical warfare agents by looking at the different inhibitors of cholinesterase. For example, eye drops used to relieve the dangerously high intraocular pressure of glaucoma use carbamates to temporarily tie up the enzyme cholinesterase, so that aceylcholine lingers longer, constricting the pupil and temporarily increasing the fluid outflow channel of the eye. When the Germans looked at phosphates, they found the phosphate group stuck to the target site, creating an essentially irreversible bond that renders cholinesterase inactive and leaves muscles contracted.
Dr. De Luca calls the surface EMG signal the "most underused bio-signal in the body." But he and Dr. Buccafusco believe the same technology that assesses the muscle weakness of a patient in rehab can be modified to serve as well on the front lines of battlefields and farmlands.