At Renssalaer Polytechnic Institute, a team of researchers led by biomedical engineering professor Eric Ledet is developing sensors that tell doctors what’s going on inside a patient’s body. The wireless sensors are implanted into the body and provide feedback via an external antenna and handheld reader. Applications include monitoring for anterior knee pain following total knee replacement surgery and detecting infections early on a surgical site, increasing the effectiveness of antibiotic treatment.
There is also an injectable version that measures pressure in the extremities, to alert doctors to the onset of compartment syndrome, a devastating consequence of traumatic injuries that often leads to amputation. All of the applications are still in the feasibility and testing phase, but Ledet hopes to begin clinical trials in late 2017, says Richie Collins Hunter, vice president of strategic communications and external relations at RPI.
Ledet’s tiny sensors are just one example of how far implant technology has come over the last several decades. According to a new report by Mordor Intelligence, the global market for bionic implants — robotic devices that replace certain body parts — is growing at a compound annual growth rate of 15.2% and will exceed $16 billion by 2019, up from $7.94 billion in 2014.
Bionic implants are being used in the heart, lungs, brain, ears, and other parts of the body. Market leaders include EDSO Bionics, Lifenet Health, Jarvik Heart, Medtronic, and Nano Retina.
In Silicon Valley, startup Kernel is creating a tiny chip that can be implanted in the brain to help people with memory loss. Developed by Ted Berger, director of the University of Southern California’s Center for Neural Engineering, the implant includes electrodes that record signals as the brain receives new information, a microprocessor to compute it and other electrodes that encode and store the input as long-term memory.
The initial market for the neuroprosthetic is people with Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia, as well as traumatic brain injury and stroke. But Kernel founder Bryan Johnson hopes it will eventually be able to boost memory and intelligence in healthy people who want to perform better on cognitive tasks.
“Human intelligence is landlocked in relationship to artificial intelligence — and the landlock is the degeneration of the body and the brain” Johnson told The Washington Post earlier this month. “This is a question of keeping humans front and center as we progress.”
Studies funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which sees a potential for brain chips to help wounded soldiers, showed the chips improved memory in rats and monkeys.
“We’re testing it in humans now, and getting good initial results,” Berger told IEEE Spectrum. “We’re going to go forward with the goal of commercializing this prosthesis.”
Other recent breakthroughs in implant technology include a flexible microchip that sends brain signals to muscles, allowing people with spinal cord injuries some use of their limbs again. Results reported this spring in Nature confirmed that a 24-year-old quadriplegic man from Dublin, OH, regained some movement in his right arm with the aid of the technology.
Essentially, the microchip detects electrical activity when patient Ian Burkhart thinks about moving his hand. The chip sends that activity to a computer, using algorithms, which translates the signal into electrical messages. The messages are transmitted to a sleeve on Burkhart’s right forearm, which stimulates his muscles.
Yet with growth of smart implants comes concerns about device malfunction as well as the failure and loss of personal control. Writing in the Health Care Analysis journal, researchers at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland say that while smart devices can enhance quality of life, that may come at the expense of control and heightened vulnerability. Regulations need to respond to the autonomy that such technologies comprise.
They note, for example, that deep brain stimulators that are used to alleviate tremors and other effects of Parkinson’s disease, have been known to cause significant personality change and, by controlling a person’s symptoms, may reduce their connection to their treatment regime.
Another example they cite is the implantable cardiac defibrillator (ICD), which delivers a shock to stop certain heart arrhythmias. While the ICD triggers the heart to beat properly again, the fact that it fired is a source of stress because it tells the person that something is terribly wrong.
“A device’s ability to sense and transmit data and automate medicine can be associated with the ‘sting’ of autonomy being disassociated from human control as well as affecting individual, group, and social environments,” the researchers write.