As a Primal lifer, I recognize that purity has a certain allure, just as I know it has its decided limitations. I frequently find myself wondering, “Would my paleolithic forebears have done/said/eaten that?” and choosing my course of action based on this line of educated assumption. It’s the WWGD lens on modern living. In a Primal-perfect world, that would be sufficient to ensure continued health and happiness. But things don’t always work out as planned…
Let’s say you hurt your back in an unfortunate turn of events. Primal dictates can certainly help with healing you over the long term, but if you want to get out of bed in the morning you’re likely stuck with the doc’s prescriptions. Similar situation if you’ve suffered physical damage to your eyesight, hearing, brain, or any number of your less robust anatomical sectors. Sometimes to get life done, you’ve just got to suck it up and take your meds.
It’s possible, however, that this may soon change. In my recent post on the vagus nerve, I touched upon an emerging curiosity in the medical world: electroceuticals. While still in comparative infancy, electroceuticals may end up revolutionizing a health care model currently dominated by the drug industry.
Simply put, bioelectronics is the field of developing “medicines” that use electrical impulses to modulate the body’s neural circuits. Electroceuticals are the devices which generate these electrical impulses to achieve therapeutic effects. Over the course of the article I may chop and change between the two terms for the sake of simplicity.
To understand how these nifty little devices work, we’ll need to take a short 20-year detour to 1997. Back then, neurosurgeon extraordinaire Kevin Tracy was studying whether an experimental molecule called CNI-1493 could limit damage to the brain after a stroke. Tracy and his team were injecting this molecule into rat brains mid-stroke to determine the extent to which it prevented swelling. To their surprise, they discovered that it not only reduced local swelling in the brain, but shut down the immune response throughout the entire body.
It seemed that none other than the vagus nerve was being stimulated by the drug, which in turn was switching immune system mediators – and hence inflammation – to the “off” position. It was at this point that Tracy abandoned his drug ambitions and began turning his eye to the brand new field of bioelectronics. He understood that by applying precise doses of bioelectric currents to certain neural pathways within the body, he could target specific areas and provide instantaneous, effective relief from pain, inflammation, and more.
The beauty of electroceuticals is their ability to target specific problem areas within the body while avoiding the wide range of side-effects often experienced with conventional drugs. Provided researchers can accurately map the neural signatures of certain diseases and inflammatory pathways, there exists the potential to stimulate or inhibit the malfunctioning pathways with tiny electrical pulses. In this way, electroceuticals can restore the health of the patient without having to flood their body with medicines that can interact negatively with otherwise healthy organs and systems. Add to this the prospect for electroceuticals (in some cases at least) to be more affordable than conventional prescription drugs, and you’ve got yourself a viable contender to the multi-billion dollar drug industry.
At this stage, bioelectronic research is all about mapping the neural networks associated with certain diseases. This means developing ludicrously small devices that can transmit information from within the body regarding neural feedbacks and responses to electrical treatments.
Unlike other areas of the medical research sector, bioelectronics requires a close collaboration between engineers, computer scientists and biologists. While bottling up three very diverse disciplines in the same lab for days at a time must have its moments, it’s so far made for very interesting developments. Examples of these outcomes include optogenics, which allows for cellular-level control; cochlear and retinal implants, which have seen large improvements in neural signal processing; and fine-tuning of prosthetic limb control, which has meant that specialists can now interact with individual neurons to allow complex motor skills. Something out of Star Wars, and it’s actually pretty darn cool.
The field has so far also produced the very promising creation of tiny nanoscale devices called memristors. These little guys can be implanted in the body with minimal invasiveness to provide compressed, real-time information on neural spikes. This, in turn, will enable scientists to develop more precise electroceutical treatments and expand their use to new areas of the body and brain.
Next, Berkeley engineers have built the first dust-sized, wireless sensors that can be implanted in the body and used to monitor internal nerves, muscles and organs. The sensors can also be used to stimulate nerves and muscles, making them a valuable device for all the budding electroceutical researchers out there. Even cooler, they’re both powered and controlled by ultrasound, a technology that is already in hospitals.
It gets weirder. DNA is now being investigated as a means of conducting electrical charges, thereby allowing for its use as an electromechanical switch for nanocomputing. Josh Hihath, author of “Gate-controlled conductance switching in DNA,” explains: “As electronics get smaller they are becoming more difficult and expensive to manufacture, but DNA-based devices could be designed from the bottom-up using directed self-assembly techniques such as ‘DNA origami’.” You heard right: DNA origami.
And if you’re completely opposed to surgical implants, how about swallowing one instead? Researchers are also in the process of developing novel ways to get electroceuticals into the body without an invasive procedure. One such means is to create “digestible electronic devices” that are non-toxic, self-powered, and even biodegradable…all while telling your doc valuable information about anything from gastrointestinal infections to diabetes.
The future is here, folks. And it’s edible.
So good, in fact, that UK pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline has teamed up with Google subsidiary Verily in an effort to take this technology to the next level. They’ve invested a whopping $715 million into funding research and development into bioelectronic treatments over the next seven years. Yes, they may have billions to play around with, but it’s not a sum to scoff at either.
There’s plenty of other big players in this emerging field. The US National Institute of Health announced late last year that it would provide over $20 million for research into its Stimulating Activity to Relieve Conditions (SPARC) program. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) received a casual $80 million from the US government to develop bioelectronic treatments for chronic diseases and mental health conditions for active military and veterans.
At the “smaller” end of the spectrum, start-up NeuSpera Medical of San Jose, California, received $8 million to fund an injectable electroceutical project designed to eliminate the need for surgery.
So what’s the lion’s share of this money getting spent on? An electroceutical market worth report published last year has a few key insights. Here’s a quick rundown of where all the magic is projected to happen:
While implantable cardioverter defibrillators (used for arrhythmia) were the hot topic for 2016, the retinal implants segment is expected to experience the most growth over the next 4 years.
With regards to implantable vs. non-invasive electroceuticals, it was all about the implants last year. But with advancements in nanotechnology driving smaller and smaller bioelectronics, non-invasive devices are set to take center-stage by 2021. It makes sense—few people want to be sliced open and have an electrical device stuck into their flesh. Morphius would agree.
Unsurprisingly, hospitals and research institutes will be the first in line to receive any electroceuticals that make it past the testing phase. While there’ll be plenty of growth in the individual use sector as well, it’s probably a good thing that these devices will remain predominantly targeted at emergency applications and under the supervision of trained professionals while we’re learning more about their potential—and potential impacts.
When I wrote about the vagus earlier this year, I explained how the birth of bioelectric treatments actually began with vagus nerve stimulation (VNS). VNS was being employed as early as 1997 to provide an effective alternative to anti-epileptic seizure drugs. Even with the technology in its infancy, these surgically implanted devices were (and still are) able to reduce seizures by up to half in many patients. These patients also reported significant improvements in depression and weight gain from being zapped, by which point it was hard to deny its potential.
Of all the non-emergency electroceutical applications, finding ways to treat inflammation via stimulation of the peripheral nervous system is one of the hottest trends in the bioelectronic world. As we explored a few weeks back, scientists are increasingly finding linkages between vagal dynamics and inflammation throughout the body. In this way, VNS via electroceuticals shows potential for treating anything from inflammatory bowel disease to arthritis.
From a basic standpoint, the vagus nerve can be seen as a continuous feedback loop that both activates and inhibits inflammation in the body. In this study, for example, scientists were able to directly stimulate the peripheral vagus nerve in rats to prevent the synthesis of pro-inflammatory cytokines in the liver. This electrical stimulation also prevented the development of shock, which can be fatal.
From a more practical perspective, this know-how can be applied to treating common inflammatory disorders. Once again playing around with rats, researchers were able to alleviate colonic inflammation and reduce weight loss associated with inflammatory bowel disease. It only takes a small assumptive leap to see how stimulating the vagus nerve in humans could help those suffering from all manner of GI inflammatory disorders.
The same mechanism by which gastrointestinal inflammation is inhibited by VNS also applies to rheumatoid arthritis. This multi-national study found that electrical VNS of up to four times daily significantly inhibited the inflammatory cytokines associated with RA. They also found that, over the course of 84 days, patients’ RA severity scores dropped markedly. We’re still in the early days, but it shows serious promise.
These developments in VNS and immune-inhibiting bioelectric therapies have driven plenty of other medical advancements. There’s now electromagnetic patches available for purchase that you can stick on any area experiencing chronic pain, which then overstimulates the brain’s pain receptors and dulls the ache. Much the same as good old cayenne pepper, as it happens.
There’s also plenty of interesting stuff going on in the acute pain department. Rather than sticking a conventional band-aid on that cut, scratch or graze, why not upgrade to an electrical bandage? Recent findings from a University of Manchester study indicates that this might just be the next big breakthrough in wound healing. As part of the study, two half-centimeter wounds were created on the arms of each brave participant, with one wound left to heal normally and the other treated with small electrical pulses over two weeks. Those pulses were found to stimulate the process by which new blood vessels are formed, meaning the wounds being zapped closed faster, had greater blood flow, and showed improved healing markers compared to the “she’ll be all right” wounds.
Electroceuticals have also expanded to encompass central nervous system disorders like MS. Researchers from Osaka University were studying the mouse equivalent of multiple sclerosis, which is induced by certain white blood (T) cells attacking the central nervous system. They found that by the simple act of hanging the mice upside down by their tails, they were able to prevent the spread of the T cells and hence stall the development of MS. This signifies that by tapping into particular neural circuits via electroceuticals, practitioners may be able to halt the progression of MS beyond the initial stages. Interesting stuff.
Short of hanging humans upside down and hoping for the best, researchers are busy developing electroceuticals to treat many of the symptoms associated with MS. One study gave 25 MS patients a headband equipped with moistened sponges attached to an electronic stimulator and got them to play computer games designed to boost cognition. After 10 sessions, the stimulator group had greater improvements and were more relaxed than the control group. In another experiment, this same treatment was shown to improve mood and reduce fatigue associated with MS.
Foot drop, a form of gait dysfunction commonly found in MS patients or those who have suffered from a stroke, may also be treatable by employing electroceuticals. Research indicates that the pre-tibial muscles can be stimulated electrically to “correct” the foot drop and adapt walking patterns for individuals. Kind of a “customize your gait” sort of scenario. Pretty neat, huh?
It’s a lot to take in—imagining health largely as energy to be stimulated or inhibited electronically, but it’s a new frontier for acting on age-old biological principles.
Part of looking at life from a Primal lens is recognizing the opportunities as well as challenges that modern living offers. I won’t be letting go of my Primal lifestyle anytime soon—or my preference for choices that stave off ill health as much as reason and science can predict. That said, it’s good to know medical innovation continues to advance. Regardless of our efforts, sometimes we find ourselves in need of medical intervention, and I won’t be someone who says no on stubborn principle.
In this way, electroceuticals can be seen as a promising field that may help some of us in decades to come (or in this one). They offer novel potential for the treatment of life-threatening conditions and show plenty of promise in improving the quality of life for millions worldwide. To boot, with careful neurological mapping and strictly-regimented testing, they should be able to do so without all the side-effects associated with conventional drugs. As for me, I’ll be keeping an eye on this sector in the years to come.
Thanks for reading, folks. Have you or those you know used any kind of electroceutical therapy? Have you done your own reading/thinking on the matter? Share your thoughts, and have a great end to the week.