I, Cyborg: The Medical Machines That Will Live Inside Us

By Erin Biba

The next gold rush in medical technology are advanced implants that will help regular our biological parts. Here's a sample of what's to come.

The theory of technological singularity may or may not be a load of bunk (we’ll leave that argument up to the philosophers), but if anything is going to get us on the road to merging with machines it’s gonna be modern medicine. We’ve been implanting pacemakers for years and it turns out they were just the front lines of a massive wave of implantable devices made for managing pain, monitoring healing, delivering drugs, and generally keeping tabs on what’s going on in our bodies. The future human may not evolve to exist inside a machine, but there’s no question that over the next ten years more and more machines will be inside us.

Here’s a look at some of the implants in development and on the market that will attach to...or pass through...each of your various parts to keep them running just right.

Skin: Health-Monitoring Patch

Think of it as temporary tattoo made out of electronic circuits. Currently in development by John Rogers and his research group at the University of Illinois, the patch will eventually be used to wirelessly monitor brain, muscle, and heart activity -- or any activity for that matter. Rogers and his team have also developed a way to integrate the electronics (which are the thickness of a human hair) into sutures that monitor the temperature and healing of a wound. The patch works thanks to Rogers’ work in unusual format electronics. His team looks at methods to restructure silicon wafers on the nanoscale to make them flexible. They’ve also discovered ways to make the patches work as muscle-stimulators, which can assist with recovery and rehabilitation from accidents.

But before the devices can enter the market the team needs to figure out how to integrate Wi-Fi capabilities. Once they hit shelves the patches will naturally wear off about a week after being applied to the skin and could eventually be used in non-medical ways to monitor skin hydration and muscle activity in athletes or even reactions to cosmetics and other consumer products that come into contact with the skin.

Further reading: Smart Sutures, American Chemical Society, Rogers Research Group Unusual Format Electronics, Nature Paper by Rogers on Flexible Electronics

Tongue: Neurostimulator For Sleep Apnea

You may be surprised to learn that one of the major causes of loud snoring is tongue obstruction. For years doctors have been treating Apnea (a disorder that causes sufferers to stop breathing during periodically during the night) with forced air machines that patients strap to their faces at night and cause them to keep breathing whether their body wants them to or not. But they’re bulky, loud, and uncomfortable. In an attempt to avoid the external machine ImThera Medical developed the aura6000, a implantable neurostimulator that sends electrical pulses into the hypoglossal nerve -- which controls the tongue movement. The pulses open up the airway and allow patients to keep breathing while they sleep. The device is currently only on the market in Europe, so Americans will have to keep on waking up their partners all night until it gains FDA approval.

Further reading: ImThera Press Release

Heart: Teeny Tiny Pacemakers

Devices that keep your heart beating at a healthy pace are ubiquitous. The problem with current technology is that in order to power the devices they need to be large enough to hold a battery and surgery is required to remove and replace them when their batteries run low. Research currently underway at Stanford by Ada Poon and her group will likely solve that problem by building implantable devices powered externally. Their latest development is a cardiac cube, eight-tenths of a millimeter in radius, that is powered by radiofrequency energy transfer. As Poon and her fellow researchers determine the optimal frequency to wirelessly power devices inside the body, implantables are likely to get smaller and smaller.

Further reading: Poon Group, Power Transmission Paper, Stanford Page on Cardiac Cube

Brain: Nerve-Stimulating Migraine Fighter

Chronic migraines can last four hours a day for more than 15 days in a row. They can be so severe that many physicians consider regular sufferers disabled. St. Jude Medical has built a device called Genesis aimed at giving them some relief. Similar to a pacemaker, Genesis is implanted at the back of the neck and connects via wires to the occipital nerves -- located on either side of your head these guys are responsible for most of the feeling you have in the back and top your noggin. When a migraine starts, patients use a remote control device to turn the stimulator on, adjust the power levels, and deliver a pulse of electricity into their occipital nerves. St. Jude recently completed a year-long study of 157 chronic migraine sufferers that resulted in a positive outcome for 88 percent of participants. Unfortunately, Genesis is currently only approved for patients in Europe.

Further reading: Official PNS Site, Press Release Regarding Study

Skeleton: Orthopedic Bone Sensors

Knowing when somebody is ready to head out into the world after foot surgery is tricky business. You use your feet enough that re-injuring yourself is super easy to do. Which is why Rensselear Polytechnic Institute researcher Eric Ledet created a tiny wireless sensor to monitor the process of healing inside a wound after it’s been closed up. Only 4mm in diameter and 500 microns thick, the sensor looks like a small wire coil and is connected to typical orthopedic inserts like rods and plates. It’s powered by an external device that also captures data about the load, strain, and pressure that a healing foot is subjected to by measuring RF frequencies released as the coils adjust to movement. Ledet’s device is still in the research and development stage (he’s only recently applied for a patent), so it may still be several years before your orthopedist wirelessly senses the progression of your healing feet.

Further reading: RPI Press Release, Bonezone Trade Pub Story

Skeleton: Spinal Morphine Pump

Drug-delivering pumps are on track to become almost as popular as cochlear implants and pacemakers. There are countless studies and trials underway from researchers attempting to developing insulin delivery systems for diabetics and pain management systems for chronic sufferers.

One system that recently received FDA approval is from Medasys. The company has been making implantable drug delivery pumps since 2005 and their latest product called Prometra is designed to deliver morphine. Implanted in the patient’s back, it can deliver tiny doses into the spine and was developed specifically to reduce the number of moving parts which, according the Medasys’ publications, makes the device more reliable.

Further reading: Medasys Prometra Page, Prometra Press Release