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Healthcare Tech BreakThrough: Wireless Nerve Stimulator Monitors Real Time Internal Activity
Researchers at Berkeley are preparing to take on epilepsy, asthma, heart arrhythmia, and chronic pain.
The same team that introduced an ultrasound-activated micro-sensor have found a way to stimulate nerves with the same technology.
StimDust, the tiniest nerve stimulator available to date, is a 6.5 mm³ sized sensor that can sense neural activity, report the activity, and stimulate the peripheral nerve accordingly. The sensor uses ultrasounds from an external device for both communications and power.
Originally introduced in 2016, neural dust is small enough to look like a dust particle but powerful enough to detect neural activity. The 2018 version, for comparison, is three times smaller than a grain of rice; about the size of a grain of sand.
StimDust adds elaborate electronics to neural dust without impacting the device’s tiny size or its safety. Researchers hope to eventually develop a Fit bit-type device that monitors internal nerves, organs, and muscles in real time.
The current version is the smallest, most efficient wireless nerve stimulator yet.
Researchers tested StimDust by cuffing it to a rat’s sciatic nerve and sending pulses that control the rat’s leg movements. The team was able to control the rat’s hind leg, record the stimulation activity, and measure how much force was exerted on the hind leg muscle during stimulation.
Through repeated and varied stimulation, researchers were able to map the response of the rat’s leg muscle to determine how much stimulation was required for a desired outcome.
As to its power, the neural dust is powered by ultrasound, and it doesn’t produce measurable heat, which is important for interaction with the human brain. Ultrasound waves from outside the body are converted to electricity by a piezo crystal that sends power to a transistor.
Ultrasound is also more reliable for use with the human body, as RF technology is limited in its ability to transmit within and through the human body. It also allows the device to communicate with a monitoring device outside the body.
In the future, the technology could lead to wearables that are implanted directly inside the body to provide real-time data on organs and systemic health. The device could even provide advance warnings for heart attacks, strokes, and other emergencies.
The idea is to have StimDust implanted through minimally invasive procedures, allowing researchers to monitor and treat disease in a patient-specific, real-time approach. The development paves the way for wireless communication to the brain and nervous system through tiny devices capable of being implanted in the body.
The downside, which always seems to accompany these developments, is the danger of security breaches. Experts warn that the same technology that makes these devices valuable for medical purposes also makes them capable of data collection. Vulnerability to hackers and marketers will likely remain a threat in the future when such wearables become implantables.