Taking Up-Close-and-Personal to the Next Level

Sensors Insights by Tom Kevan

Since mobile devices have become firmly established in everyday life, a growing number of electronics have moved one step closer to interfacing with users in an up-close-and-personal way, like Google Glass and Pebble. Paralleling this trend is the growing role of sensing technology in these platforms.

Incorporated into wearable electronics, sensors expand the range of services provided, making applications like augmented reality more commonplace. As scientists find ways to extrapolate miniaturization, power generation, and wireless technologies for these devices, the Internet of Things becomes more intimate, setting the stage for the next logical progression: advanced medical implants.

In a recent Gigaom article, Signe Brewster introduces the concept of "the Internet of You," a world in which wireless medical implants change the way medicine is practiced and healthcare is delivered. In her article, Brewster maps out implant developments that sound like science fiction rivaling the Fantastic Voyage.

During this metamorphosis, implants will evolve from briefly deployed devices to platforms that assume long-term roles. Not only will these sensor-enabled systems function longer in the body; they will also assume fundamentally different roles than their simpler predecessors. Instead of performing quick interventions to stabilize critical problems so that medical regimens can address the root causes of health problems, they will perform continuous monitoring and control functions to promote wellness. With these enhanced capabilities, the new devices will be able to take on a whole new class of applications, ranging from providing early warnings of heart attacks to tracking sleep patterns over long periods of time.

As Brewster points out, another aspect poised to change is the static nature of implants. In the not-too-distant future, you can expect to see mobile implants. Engineers at Stanford University have already demonstrated a self-propelled medical device that could move through the bloodstream to deliver drugs to specific areas, provide insight into medical conditions, or remove blood clots and plaque from arteries.

The Problem of Foreign Bodies
One of the obstacles these implants must overcome to realize their full potential is the human immune system. This natural defense mechanism perceives implants as health threats and rejects them from the body or encapsulates the device, preventing it from functioning properly.

Recently, however, researchers have developed a biocompatible polymer coating that protects sensor-enabled implants from these assaults. The coating consists of a hermetic sealing layer, a chemically inert diffusion barrier for ions and humidity, and a layer of amphiphilic block copolymers. Testing has validated the in-vitro stability and nontoxicity of the coating, clearing the way for the deployment of implants that restore eyesight or control diabetes by sensing blood glucose and dispensing insulin.

Questions of Privacy and Safety
While these medical devices promise to deliver great healthcare benefits and insights, they also pose significant threats to privacy and safety. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has warned the healthcare industry of the danger of hacking and called for measures to secure implants and eliminate the vulnerabilities stemming from the use of wireless communications and Internet connections. So when these new implants make their appearance, they will likely defend the personal medical data they collect and deliver with password protection, encryption, and authentication.

Tom Kevan is a New Hampshire-based freelance writer specializing in technology.

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