Could Electrical Implants Replace Pills for some Illnesses?

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An article from The Guardian 

A pioneering approach to tackling a host of diseases using an electrical implant could eventually reduce or even end pill-taking for some patients, researchers have claimed.

The technology relies on electrical stimulation of the vagus nerve – a bundle of nerve fibres that runs from the brain to the abdomen, branching off to organs including the heart, spleen, lungs and gut, and which relays signals from the body’s organs to the brain and vice versa.

The pacemaker-like device is typically implanted below the left collarbone with wires running to the vagus nerve in the neck and is already used to tackle treatment-resistant epilepsy and depression.

But a growing body of researchers say that such “hacking” of the body’s neural circuits could alleviate the symptoms of diseases including rheumatoid arthritis and Crohn’s disease by tapping into a recently discovered link between the brain and the immune system.

That, they say, could bring hope for those with currently untreatable conditions while raising the possibility for others of dramatically reducing medication, or even cutting it out altogether.

“In your lifetime and mine we are going to see millions of people with devices so they don’t have to take drugs,” said Kevin Tracey, president of the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research and co-founder of bioelectronics company, SetPoint Medical.

Among the studies fuelling the excitement is research published by Tracey and colleagues last year: of the 17 patients with rheumatoid arthritis involved in a clinical trial, more than two-thirds had at least a 20% improvement in their disease, with two entering remission.
“Within six weeks I felt no pain. The swelling has gone. I go biking, walk the dog and drive my car. It is like magic,” Monique Robroek, a participant in the team’s research told Sky News in 2014.

Dubbed “bioelectronics”, the field is no fringe affair, with research groups around the world as well as companies including General Electric, GlaxoSmithKline and Google entering the fray; the US National Institutes of Health has also awarded $20m towards research in the field.

The premise is novel. While conventional medicine looks to tackle the presence of certain problematic molecules using drugs, bioelectronics instead looks to manipulate the neural circuits behind the release of such molecules. “Every cell in the body is within shouting distance of a neuron,” said Tracey.

The approach builds on the so-called “inflammatory reflex” – a process discovered by Tracey by which information on tissue damage and inflammation is sent to the brain via the vagus nerve, which then sends signals back down to organs to dampen the inflammation.

“It is really exciting because for decades we thought the brain had no influence on our immune system whatsoever,” said Matthijs Kox , an expert in immune responses from Radboud university medical centre in the Netherlands.

The key to tackling diseases like rheumatoid arthritis is tumor necrosis factor (TNF) – a substance involved in inflammation that is primarily released from white blood cells called macrophages, found in the spleen and elsewhere in the body.

The full article is available of the Guardian website