Amazing Brain Power: How Electronic Implants Are Changing Modern Medicine

Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, modified by Curiousmatic.

As medicine and technology advance simultaneously, the fields combine to treat age-old medical disorders via new-age electronic implants.

Here we take a look at some neurological conditions and other ailments benefiting from new and advanced treatments using electronic implants.

These brain-powering devices, which utilize electronic signals and more to alter or enhance brain communication, could change modern medicine as we know it.

Epilepsy: Implants ceasing seizures.

It wasn’t until the early 1900s that neurologists coined the word epilepsy, with the first antiepileptic drug created in 1912. There are currently a number of antiepileptic drugs available as listed by the Epilepsy Society; other treatments include Vagus nerve stimulation, deep brain stimulation therapy, and brain surgery.

Enter the implant: The FDA has recently approved a device called an RNS stimulator, which is embedded in a person’s brain, and upon detection of abnormal activity can fire electrical signals to stop the seizure from happening.

The invention and approval of this device means that epileptics that don’t respond to medication and are not qualified for surgery will finally have effective preventative treatment.

Parkinson’s: Implants slowing cell damage. 

Doctor James Parkinson established the disease as a recognized medical condition in 1817, and the disease was named after him 60 years later. Treatment for PD (Parkinson’s Disease) has since been mainly through symptom-controlling medications, surgical therapy, and other types of therapies.

Enter the implant: Parkinson’s has thus far been incurable. But the development of an implant by scientists from Bristol, UK has shown to encourage damaged cells to grow again. The device works by pumping proteins called “glial cell line-derived neurotrophic factors” into patients’ brains once a month from a port behind the ear.

The potential of slowing down, or perhaps even stopping Parkinson’s in its tracks is something no other treatment can do, and is therefore extremely promising for future of the disease.

Various examples of electronic implants. Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, FeatheredTar via Flickr, and Intel Free Press via Flickr.

Alzheimer’s: Implants halting memory loss. 

This disease, first described in 1906 by doctor Alois Alzheimer, is treated currently using four medications approved by the FDA. These work by regulating neurotransmitters, which can help patients retain memory, despite making no change to the underlying disease process.

Enter the implant: Researchers at John Hopkins Medicine successfully implanted a pacemaker-like device into the brain of a patient in the early stages of Alzheimer’s in late 2012. The device is designed to enhance the brain’s functioning mechanically – which could halt memory loss, and work significantly better than medication.

Similar clinical trials are being performed by doctors at Butler Hospital, Rhode Island Hospital, and Ohio State University. Since 1 in 3 seniors dies with Alzheimer’s or another dementia, Alzheimer’s being the 6th leading cause of death in the U.S., the success of these trials would be no small feat.

Blindness, Deafness, and Paralysis: Implants restoring power

Correction for the visually and audio-impaired has been much improved by eyeglasses, cataract surgery, and hearing aids, which first became available in the 1200’s, 1700’s and 1800’s, respectively. Paralysis, on the other hand, has never been successfully cured.

Enter the implants: Prosthetic eyes have been developed using the electric stimulation of retinal neurons, which helps restore light perception and even facial recognition for blind patients. One procedure, called Osteo-Odonto-Keratoprosthesis (OOKP), restored vision to a blinded father using an implant from the patient’s tooth (seriously) and a plastic lens.

For hearing, the development of cochlear implants has allowed hearings for deaf patients – the electronic device bypasses parts of the ear that do not work, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Electronic implants are even helping paralyzed patients walk again. A spinal cord implant that mimics brain signals allowed a paralyzed patient to walk in 2011, according to CNN. Similarly, a device developed by German scientists enabled four people to walk again using technology that sends electronic signals from the brain to the legs.

Originally published on December 2, 2013. 

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