Will Doctors Be Prescribing Computer Chips Someday Soon?

from the electric-avenue dept

This sounds interesting and creepy at the same time. An inventor is developing a computerized implant that goes inside the skull and treats a variety of ailments and diseases. The thinking is that manipulating the brain’s electrical signals can stimulate and heal problem areas, and do so in a much more targeted way than current medication that affects the whole body. There are probably many skeptics out there who have reasonable doubts about this approach, but the guy does have some scientific cred — among other things creating medical devices once thought to be farfetched but in common use today. Also, he’s not the first to develop such a product: he’s been at for seven years and another company will probably beat him to market. If it does come to fruition and actually works (two big if’s, to be sure), the threat to pharmaceuticals would be huge. Don’t be surprised to see lots of brainpower dedicated this issue for the next couple years.

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Comments on “Will Doctors Be Prescribing Computer Chips Someday Soon?”

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dorpus says:

Threat? Heh.

The long tradition in the pharmaceutical industry is to let biotech startups invest in risky technologies. If they work (about 0.1% of them do), then big pharmas will buy them up and put them through the capital-intensive processes of clinical trials and marketing. A biotech startup has a snowball’s chance in hell of making it big on its own — VC’s are too squeamish to fund such ventures.

The same thing really happens in the high-tech industry, where about 99% of startups fail, and of the 1% that make it, about 0.9% get bought out by a bigger company.

dorpus says:

Big Scam Alert

“Fischell, a physicist who once designed satellites for NASA, sees no problem with the notion of large swaths of the population walking around with battery-operated circuitry in their heads. The concept, no doubt, would be a leap for patients, many of whom might fear the possibility of surgical mistakes, infection, or long-term effects. Not surprisingly, Fischell thinks of drug therapy for neurological disorders as ‘inelegant.'”

Medical research has a long tradition of physicists who thought they could teach doctors about science. They came into the field and quickly made fools of themselves, as the human body is nothing like the elegant theories that physicists are accustomed to.

Also, I would be very scared of having batteries and wires in people’s heads — what about the bacteria that come with the batteries? How will the metal components hold up after several years soaked in cerebrospinal fluid?

bbay says:

Re: Big Scam Alert

You’re a bit behind the times, dorpus. There are already thereputic brain implants in use today, parkinson’s implants and cochlear implants are the two that spring immediately to mind. Not to mention all the millions of pacemakers out there. “Bacteria that come with the batteries”? C’mon.

And drugs ARE inelegant. Neurophameceuticals can’t be targetted at one specific brain region, their effects are, by necessity, spread throughout the entire brain. Imagine if, say, an epileptic could have an implant to calm just her temporal lobe, avoiding some of the unpleasant side effects of anti-seizure medicines.

Medicine also has a long history of being benefited by many other diciplines of science.

dorpus says:

Re: Re: Big Scam Alert

When you say “Parkinson’s implants”, I assume you mean fetal stem cell injections? They have succeeded in a few experiments, but haven’t worked well for patients over 60, and is not legally practical at this time.

As for cochlear implants, that is implanted in the inner ear, so it would be a stretch to call it a “brain implant”.

A few retinal cameras have been experimentally successful here and there, but nobody so far has planted electronic machinery inside people’s brain cavities.

As for drugs being spread evenly throughout a system, this does not have to be so either. Cells have plenty of molecules that direct specific chemicals to specific places; our technology is not yet advanced enough to take advantage of this machinery. But when we do, we will have drugs that the body will send only to specific cells, or even specific parts of cells. A drug goes through the four steps of ADME (Absorption, Distribution, Metabolism, and Excretion).

dorpus says:

Re: Re: Re: Big Scam Alert

Also, bacteria is not to be underestimated. When NASA put spacecraft on the moon, everything was supposedly sterilized, using the most elaborate procedures ever devised. But as a matter of fact, there was plenty of bacteria still, and some even survived for a year on the moon. Technicians found it when they examined the equipment that astronauts recovered. The brain is much more vulnerable to infections than the heart, which is full of blood.

dorpus says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Big Scam Alert

The Mir Space Station, in its final days, had a serious problem with bacteria that was growing on the outside of the spaceship and eating the spaceship’s skin. The bacteria is said to have been harvested and studied by Russian scientists, for possible military use.

If bacteria can thrive in the vacuum of space, your brain might as well be a Starbucks Lemon Scone to them.

bbay says:

Re: Re: Re: Big Scam Alert

I do not mean stem cells. I’m talking about electrodes implanted directly into the thalamus.

A minute with google gives me this old bbc article:
And a picture:
It even has the thalamus labeled, lucky me.

It would not be much of a stretch to call a cochlear implant a brain implant. Less than a centimeter, in fact. But that’s not the point, the point is that it’s an electronic implant that exists inside the body (in the skull, even) that doesn’t suffer from ‘bacteria in the batteries’, or whatever you’re talking about.

And the ‘retinal cameras’, if you mean what I think you mean, actually DO have electrodes inside the skull. One type is about the size and shape of a nail head and penetrates into the visual cortex, another is about the size of a cough drop and sits inside the skull and makes contact with the surface of the visual cortex. You can google that one yourself, I know you’re good at it. I’m not sure I’d call those experiments successful, but they were certainly interesting.

Talk about molecularly targetted drugs is still in it’s infancy, except for a couple of serendipitous examples, and will be for at least a decade. And especially when you’re talking about the brain, which is a large mass of mostly homogenous tissue, molecular targetting of a specific _functional_ unit (like the temporal lobe, or rather the small part of it, different for each individual, that sparks the cascade of a seizure) is basically impossible, because there’s not much metabolic difference (if any), from the adjacent tissues.

Electronic implants, on the other hand, are thereputically useful today.

As for targetting specific parts of cells, that’s quite speculative at this point. Though I do think it might eventually be possible, within some pretty specific constraints.

Also, small nitpick, the body doesn’t ‘send’ the drugs there, it sends the drugs everywhere, it’s just that the drugs are keyed so that (hopefully) only the targetted tissues absorb them.

(Your last sentence about ADME was really random and irrelevant. Also, your confusion of “parkinson’s implant” with “implanted stem cells for parkinson’s” is interesting. You’re only barely passing my Turing test here, are you some kind of googling AI?)

Fernanda says:

Re: Big Scam Alert

If I may, I would like to point out that we must not forget that the great inventors, thinkers, and geniuses in the history of humankind made “fools of themselves” when they announced their discoveries, inventions, and revolutionary ideas. Let us not act as our ancestors who believed that the earth was flat because that was the conventional wisdom at that time; that Christianity was the only way to salvation because it behooved the powerful then; therefore, let us not assume that drug treatment and surgery are the only means of “salvation” that make sense because they agree with today’s conventional wisdom and behoove today’s powerful pharmaceutical industry.

In anticipation to future comments, I would like to add that I am a Christian but believe that there are other “venues” to salvation… that I have to take meds every single day of my life but would like to have available to me other “venues” of treating my illness. If 70 years ago my grandfather had an artificial eye implanted and could not see with it, why not implant an eye that can see? If 20 years ago, electrodes were used to monitor my baby’s heartbeat in my womb, why not implant electrodes in my brain that will monitor my chemical imbalance so I do not have to take meds for the rest of my life?

I know…my thoughts are too simplistic! But what is wrong with being simplistic? We will find solutions for the unwanted side effects the same way the pharmaceutical industry continues researching to improve the available meds and to discover new ones. We will fight infections and all sorts of side effects like our predecessors did when the first surgeries were performed. We will evolve and improve if we keep an open mind, look at the big picture, analyze the past and present, and allow our human nature to develop.

When we analyze the past we learn that money and power change hands…genius does not. So, thanks to those who contribute to the management of our illnesses, to those who spend endless hours in operating rooms, and to today’s pioneers who have the courage to make a “fool of themselves”!!! Rest assured my dear “fools” that you will be remembered as geniuses by the future generations, and those who call you fools today… What do we call those guys from the past who laughed at Da Vinci and Copernicus?

PS: Dear dorpus, do you have a car? Never mind. I was just wondering if you have “a problem with the notion of large swaths of the population driving around…”

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