By Siddharth Pai
Last week, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s MIT News announced that the institute’s engineers had designed an adhesive patch that produces ultrasound images of the body. The stamp-sized device sticks to skin and can provide continuous ultrasound imaging of internal organs for 48 hours. As we have seen in many doctors’ clinics and hospitals today, ultrasound imaging is a safe and non-invasive window into the body’s workings, providing clinicians with live images of a patient’s internal organs. Today, to capture these images, trained technicians manipulate ultrasound wands, probes and other devices to sound waves into the body. These waves then reflect to produce high-resolution images of a patient’s heart, liver, and other deep organs.
Currently, ultrasound imaging requires bulky and specialised equipment available only in hospitals and doctors’ clinics. But this new design by MIT engineers might make the diagnostic technology as wearable and accessible as buying bandaids at a pharmacy.
Some months before Covid set in and turned our attention to other matters, there was news of an unusual scientific trail. The trial, run at Baylor Medical College and at UCLA, restored partial sight to six blind people via an implant that transmitted video images directly to the brain. The technology is not proven on those who are born blind, but nonetheless, represented a phenomenal breakthrough in the area of implants. All previous attempts had focused on making implants into the eye itself. But for the implant in an eye to work, a patient needed to have both a working eye and an optic nerve that wasn’t damaged. The new device that was used was called “Orion” and fed images from a camera directly into the brain. Orion is not yet ready for prime time, but further work may make it so.
At around the same time, theoretical neuroscientist Vivienne Ming grabbed attention after she announced that she was trying to turn her autistic son into a “cyborg”. Her area of research and development is “cognitive neuroprosthetics”—devices that directly interface with the brain to improve memory, attention, emotion, and much more. After she learned that her son was autistic, she put her research to work to build a face and expression-recognition system for Google Glass designed to interpret others’ facial expressions in real-time. Ming said, “I’ve chosen to turn my son into a cyborg and change the definition of what it means to be human. But do my son’s engineered superpowers make him more human, or less?” This is a deep philosophical question, and one that must indeed be pondered by anyone who attempts to tamper with the human body using technology that is still experimental. Despite such quandaries, we are constantly pushing the frontiers of science and medicine.
While these breakthroughs are exciting, many attempts at melding man with machine come with a common problem. This problem ranges from the lowly cardiac pacemaker all the way through to ultrafine implants that stimulate the central nervous system. Current neuromodulation systems need surgical implantation of bulky components with a limited battery life. Batteries impact cost, lifetime, size, weight, repeat surgeries, and tissue heating and cause performance compromises. A cursory search reveals that the National Institute of Health in the US opines that pacemaker batteries last from 5-15 years, but on average their lifespan is 6-7 years. This means that a doctor has to operate again after about seven years to either replace the battery—or the pacemaker itself. Imagine this process for a fine ocular implant in a blind person’s eye!
What is fascinating is that science has begun to tackle this problem head-on. One researcher in particular has made much progress in the field. He is Prof. Rahul Sarpeshkar, an old schoolmate of mine whom I have known for over 45 years. Sarpeshkar holds dozens of patents in his name and has four concurrent professorships at Dartmouth, where he has moved after many years at MIT. One of the most fascinating of Sarpeshkar’s inventions is a flexible chip-type implant that harnesses glucose present in the body and converts it into electrical energy that can power a neurological implant. The problem of battery size can be tackled, to a large extent, by reducing the power consumption and operating the electronics near fundamental levels of physics.
Achieving higher number of channels, better signal-to-noise ratio, improved flexibility, and robustness whilst working at ultra-low power can significantly lower implant sizes without sacrificing performance. Sarpeshkar intends to build on about 15+ years of an ultra-low power semiconductor patent portfolio he developed while at MIT. Most of these patents have already been fabricated to generate chipsets that have been validated in lab and animal trials. Some of these chipsets and systems, especially related to cochlear (ear) implants, have been tested on human subjects in a lab.
According to Sarpeshkar, the global neuromodulation market can have explosive growth. Neuromodulation is the most lucrative sector in the European neurological device market, accounting for over half of the revenue. In India, he estimates that about 30 million people suffer from various forms of neurological diseases and the average prevalence rate is as high as 2,394 patients per 100,000 of the population. But as opposed to Western societies where insurance can cover large costs, we have a different problem. Current neuromodulation devices cost between $10,000-40,000, putting them out of reach for many Indians. If Sarpeshkar is successful in his attempts to create a replicable platform off which developers of neuromodulation devices can power their devices, the resulting lower cost could make them affordable here.
The writer is a technology consultant and venture capitalist. By invitation.