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Implants Usher in a Health Revolution

May 5, 2015
Implants have been shown to improve healing time and treat diseases—and now they are biodegradable, to boot.

Pharmaceuticals can be effectively used to treat many health conditions, but side effects are always a concern. Drug-free technologies have thus become a popular area of research, with implants emerging as one of the most promising areas of study.

One popular use for implants used to heal surgical wounds heal faster. Unfortunately, the improved healing may not be too helpful if the patient needs to be reopened to retrieve the implant. Researchers in Norway may have found a solution, having developed a magnesium circuit capable of transferring energy and being broken down by bodily fluids. This research will help patients heal faster without the need to retrieve the implant. It also has an environmentally friendly benefit, as it eliminates stockpiles of biohazard circuits from piling up.

DARPA’s ElectRx (pronounced electrics) uses neuromodulation to target a small group of neurons to diffuse to large areas of the nervous system. This means that an implant can monitor a patient’s health with a closed-loop circuit. If an organ is not functioning properly, the implant can stimulate the nerves necessary to regain normal function of a system or organ.

1. The spleen can send out a chemical that will cause the immune system to attack the cells around the joints. This small device works with a larger pulse generator to simulate the vagus nerve reducing the activity of the spleen that in some test have shown to greatly reduce rheumatoid arthritis.

DARPA is aligning this program to help the understanding of the neurological circuits and their role in health. This is part of the government’s BRAIN Initiative—Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies. DARPA plans to explore two technical areas: The first is is to understand the body’s neurological function as a system, mapping out the nerves that control and effect the body. The second is to develop non-invasive components that can interact with this neurological map.

It is hoped that this technology will someday be able to help alleviate post-traumatic stress syndrome, Parkinson’s, depression, and other conditions. One implant designed by GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) has been used to help patients deal with chronic inflammation and arthritis pain. This new technology uses a pulse generator to send an electrical impulse to the vagus nerve, reducing the activity of the spleen. A patient turns it on by waving a magnet over the device (that is under the collarbone). The device will run for three minutes and then turn off. Some patients in the study have already given up their medication, relying solely on this new device.

2. The GSK electrical implant is activated by passing a magnet around the collar bone to turn it on. Pulses of electricity will stimulate the vagus nerve for 3 minutes then turn off.

GSK is starting to look into whether this technology could use other types of  implants,  preventing the airway spasms of asthma, controlling the appetite in obese people, or restoring normal insulin production for diabetes sufferers. Its potential for epilepsy treatment is also being assessed. The sample size for the rheumatoid arthritis study was small, but this hasn’t affected the enthusiasm researchers or patients.

About the Author

Jeff Kerns | Technology Editor

Studying mechanical engineering at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), he worked in the Polymer Research Lab. Utilizing RIT’s co-op program Jeff worked for two aerospace companies focusing on drafting, quality, and manufacturing for aerospace fasteners and metallurgy. He also studied abroad living in Dubrovnik, Croatia. After college, he became a commissioning engineer, traveling the world working on precision rotary equipment. Then he attended a few masters courses at the local college, and helped an automation company build equipment.

Growing up in Lancaster County, PA he always liked to tinker, build, and invent. He is ecstatic to be at Machine Design Magazine in New York City and looks forward to producing valuable information in the mechanical industry. 

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