DARPA ElectrRx

The IDTechEx conference was held in Santa Clara, CA November 18 and 19, 2015, covering a wide range of topics including wearable devices and related technology such as sensors, printed electronics, and energy harvesting. This is one of the many items of interest from that conference.

The body has miraculous powers to heal itself, though at times it needs some help. A new initiative by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is working to come up with ways to monitor body functions to detect disease and damage, and then trigger systems to boost the body’s natural healing functions. This project is named Electrical Prescriptions, or ElectRx for short. The goal is to create closed-loop systems that can be applied to chronic and temporary conditions, including those that may not respond to traditional treatment with medicines.

The concept is similar to a standard heart pacemaker. Sensors can detect when a heart is not in its normal rhythm, and then a device can provide a small electrical stimulation to encourage the heart to return to a normal beat pattern. The idea of the program is to use sensors to detect signals in body organs, such as major nerves, and then determine what therapeutic actions might be taken. The program is exploring three main avenues of stimulation, which could be applied in a minimally- or even non-invasive manner. Ultrasound can be used to penetrate tissues to trigger nerve responses. Magnetic nanoparticles can be used to produce localized heat to stimulate nerves, by applying pulsing magnetic field. And optogenetics modifies specific cells to make them sensitive to light, which could lead to treatments that target specific nerves using light.

Researchers working on this project include teams from Columbia University, MIT, Purdue, Johns Hopkins, and the University of Texas, Dallas. This work could lead to a broad expansion of “self-healing” treatments that do not require drugs.