Throughout the last 100 years, the world has witnessed incredible advances in medicine that have dramatically improved the lives of the sick. But while there may be more drugs on the market than you could possibly fathom, many diseases can’t be treated by popping pills. That’s why DARPA is working towards a futuristic medical implant that not only continuously monitors the condition of your organs, but also helps your body heal itself when problems arise.
The program, known as Electrical Prescriptions (ElectRx), aims to develop technology that could “fundamentally change the manner in which doctors diagnose, monitor and treat injury and illness,” DARPA’s Doug Weber said in a news release. Moving away from conventional medicine, DARPA plans to develop an implantable device that works somewhat like an intelligent pacemaker, continually monitoring the body’s condition and providing feedback in the form of a stimulus that would help maintain healthy organs.
The idea behind the ElectRx implant is that it would act as a neuromodulatory device. Neuromodulation is the reversible alteration, or “modulation,” of the nervous system through stimulation of various nerves. These changes in neural activity can be achieved either through drugs or electrical stimulation, both of which are introduced by implants.
In the body, the peripheral nervous system (the nerves outside the brain and spinal cord) is constantly monitoring your organs and regulating responses to infection, injury or disease. Certain conditions can unfortunately cause this process to go haywire and rather than resolving the problem, peripheral nerve signals start to actually worsen the situation, triggering pain, inflammation and immune system problems.
That’s where ElectRx’s tiny little device would come in. After sensing problems, it would send out tailored electrical impulses to populations of nerves that help the body heal itself, keeping patients healthy using their own bodily systems rather than drugs.
There already exists a market for neuromodulatory devices, but current models are bulky, around the size of a deck of cards, and consequently require invasive surgery to fit them into patients. ElectRx devices, on the other hand, would be similar in size to individual nerves and could therefore be implanted with ease, perhaps with a needle.
Thanks to the recent identification of neural circuits involved in the regulation of immune system function, these devices could possibly be useful in the treatment of various inflammatory diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis and inflammatory bowel disease. Furthermore, it could one day lead to better treatments for various brain and mental health problems, such as epilepsy, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.
But ElectRx has got a long way to go before these ambitious devices can become a reality. Researchers need to first develop novel biosensors and also devise techniques that would allow the precise targeting of single nerves or small populations of nerve fibers that control relevant organs.