Electroceuticals: Implants Deliver Electric Jolts to Treat Diseases

Electroceuticals are a futuristic way to deliver electric jolts from an implant rather than ingesting pharmaceuticals to combat inflammation and cure diseases. An electroceutical is a very small device that is implanted in the body. It can produce electric jolts that stimulate nerves to alter physiological functions. Potential applications include stimulating the pancreas to produce insulin, which would be a treatment for diabetes, or stimulating blood vessels to lower blood pressure.

The development of electroceuticals follows the development and use of other types of devices that are implants that employ electrical stimulation, such as a pacemaker that stimulates heartbeats, or a cochlear implant, which is a device that is implanted in the inner ear to assist with hearing perception. The miniaturization of computer chips and medical devices allows the electroceutical implant to be placed and controlled in the body with precision.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) will be dedicating $248 million to map the body’s electrical wiring and develop electroceutical implant devices. Private corporations have gotten on the bandwagon as well and are devoting time and money to develop electroceuticals. For example, Glaxo Smith Kline has reportedly begun to set up a similar program.

Some devices have already been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). On May 1, 2014, the FDA approved a device that stimulates airway muscles to regulate breathing while sleeping to combat apnea. On June 17, 2014, an FDA committee recommended that a weight control device be approved. This weight control device is implanted between the esophagus and stomach and the vagus nerve is stimulated to create a feeling of satiety.

Stimulation with the device on well-chosen nerves could help with combating inflammation. Stimulating the vagus nerve, for example, is known to block the immune system response and block inflammation, which can be a good thing at certain times, like at the time of a stroke. Rather than using a drug to combat inflammation and swelling of the brain during a stroke, stimulation of the vagus nerve might do the job better.

The benefit of focused electrical stimulation, rather than swallowing pills and potions, is the treatment and is not systemic. While drugs are taken for a particular problem, they can affect many things in the body. Drugs therefore can have unwanted side effects. The use of implants that are carefully placed should not have the same risk of systemic effects. Even though electroceutical implants that deliver electric jolts are thought to have great promise for treating diseases, it is still difficult to make predictions about how they will work. The experiments that are carried out to test electroceutical implants are largely done by trial and error rather than with precise predictions.

It is hard to say what the extent of swapping electroceutical implants for drugs may be in the future. The implants work with the nervous system, and this may prove to be much more complicated than expected. For one thing, a requirement for the development of electroceuticals is mapping of the nervous system. This is not a simple task. Optogenetics, which is the use of light and genetically modified opsins to manipulate the nervous system on a cellular level, can be considered to be a “cousin” to electroceuticals. Combining knowledge from optogenetics and electroceuticals may prove to be beneficial in solving some of the more daunting problems facing electroceutical development programs.

By Margaret Lutze


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