In a recent issue of Nature, Swedish engineer GÃ¶ran Gustafsson shares his vision: utilizing electronic devices to monitor and treat the body, day in, day out.
He foresees a future in which humans are wired up like cars, with sensors that form a similar early-warning system, informing you when your system is at risk of malfunctioning. While critics may say Gustafsson's prediction of the future of health care is far off, and a concept still in its infant stages, they would be surprised to find that Gustafsson's team of researchers are not the only ones working towards making his vision a reality.
The challenge of producing electronic wearable devices are numerous. In addition to the primary objective of creating an effective and efficient device, it would have to adhere to or be implanted within the body, yet not trigger an immune response, as would most foreign implants.
Further compounding the issue, for devices attaching to the body's surface, it would have to be flexible enough to move with the contours of the body, yet rigid enough to remain intact arguably a difficult dynamic to achieve in the right proportions. The overall goal would be to integrate the device to work in tandem with the body, gathering information and then transmitting it to a remote location, for example the person's cellphone.
Taking the technology further, the device could be programmed to deal with any issues it detects. For example, bioelectronics engineer George Malliarasone and his team of French researchers have developed a device, an organic electronic ion pump, that detects epileptic fits and in response delivers drugs directly to the affected areas of the brain.
The application of this technology could change the way clinicians practice medicine, lending itself as an interventional tool for effective primary and secondary prevention.
Zhenan Bao, an engineer at Stanford University in California, and her team, created a thin pressure sensor. The device can be used in heart monitors that track how fast pressure waves pass through arteries. This information can be used to detect increased stiffness in vessel walls, serving as a predictor of heart attacks. And all of this is generated from a device on the surface of the skin. Imagine the possibilities when this technology is applied to implants placed deeper within the body.
Even with such advances, issues of biocompatibility with the body, harnessing power in innovative ways to drive the applications of these devices within the body, and personal privacy (once the data is transmitted to a remote source) are all at the forefront of this drive towards wearable electronic devices in the healthcare industry.
Magnus Berggren, an electronic engineer and Gustafsson colleague places the issue in context saying, The challenge is to put everything together ... they did it for the car industry and it's impressive. You rarely see cars standing along the side of the road waiting for repair. Whether it's possible to do this also for humans is still a question mark, but it's definitely worth trying.