We’ve all heard the commercials promoting prescription drugs. Take a pill to reduce a headache but the side effect could cause a heart attack. Not only is the pharmaceutical approach to illness, risky, but the cost of the drugs can be astronomical. One company, Glaxo-Smith-Kline, is experimenting with a new approach. Bio electronics is research into electrical implants that are no bigger than a grain of rice and sometimes smaller. The devices can be inserted at various points along the nervous system to treat disease and eliminate the need for drugs. (“Your Nanobot Saviors Have Arrived,” by Matthew Campbell, Bloomberg Businessweek, June 14-26, 2016, pg. 76-79.)
The nervous system, writes Matthew Campbell, is comparable to a computer. “Neurons are either on or off, one or zero, firing electric impulses called action potentials in patterns that carry instructions from the brain. Introducing new electrical pulses can tweak those patterns, blocking some commands and encouraging others.” (Ibid pg. 77) Besides being cheaper, these bio electronics can be reused or reprogrammed to perform other functions in other bodies.
The concept isn’t new. Think of pacemakers and cochlear implants. Other products are in the pipe-line. One under development suppresses appetites to assist in weight loss. An epilepsy device to monitor for seizures and stop them before they occur has just made it to market: the RNS system. (Ibid pg. 79.) Glaxo-Smith-Kline has announced three more implants will soon be ready for market but won’t identify the ailments targeted. Speculation on the street is they are for arthritis and diabetes.
Other pharmaceuticals haven’t jumped into bio electronic research because scientists know so little about how neurons control organ functions; nor have they unlocked their codes. As one researcher explains: “What does it mean to accelerate your heartbeat in terms of electrical signals? Is it beep-beep-beep? Or beeeeeeeep, beep, beeeeeeeep?” (Ibid pg. 78.) And where to put these grains of sand in another question. In the brain? The affected organ? Or in the nervous system?
These uncertainties mean more research lies ahead and buckets of money must be spent. Still drugs aren’t cheap and those nasty side affects remain. So, Glaxo-Smith-Kline continues to work in unchartered territory, believing its implants will eventually keep medical costs down.
I can’t speak to future of implants, but those already in existence have worked miracles. When I got my metal hips, I threw away my pain pills and have never looked back.