Electrical approach triggers new treatments for chronic disease

Known variously as bioelectronics or electroceuticals, emerging therapies that use the electronics or electrical stimulation of the nervous system to treat chronic disease offer exciting potential for improved human health and wellbeing. And Australian researchers are at the forefront of this fledging field.

At the University of Melbourne’s Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering, researchers have been involved in efforts to develop bionic ear and eye technologies, as well as brain stimulation treatments for epilepsy.

Professor David Grayden says the department is now involved in a new project to help treat the chronic and debilitating condition inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).

The collaborative project is being led by Professor John Furness at the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health. Other partners include the Bionics Institute and the Austin Hospital.

The four-year project has received $6 million funding from the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), as IBD affects US returned service personnel at twice the rate of the general population.

Professor Grayden says the aim is to develop a bionic device that could be implanted in the abdominal or chest region to stimulate the vagus nerve, the major nerve that connects the brain and the bowel, to help trigger the body’s repair mechanisms.

The Florey Institute extracts neural recordings that show how the brain interacts with the bowel. We then fit mathematical models to the recordings, to understand the neural responses — for example, how long does it take neurons to respond to inflammation and how long does the response last?

He says using this information, a closed-loop control system can be developed as part of a bionic implant to monitor levels of inflammation and determine when and what level of stimulation is needed to counteract it.

The researchers hope to undertake the first human trials of such a device within the next three years, as part of the current research project.

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