Microimplants: electricity instead of pills (Interview)

Active implants such as pacemakers revolutionized healthcare decades ago. But they also have disadvantages: their size and relatively short life span, for example. At Fraunhofer IZM, research is therefore being conducted on durable microimplants that stimulate nerve cells electrically in a targeted manner and are even to be used to treat multiple sclerosis.

Dr. Vasiliki Giagka: My team and I are developing bioelectronic implants that interact with the body. Their predecessor is the pacemaker, which was developed as early as 1958. However, our implants interface with the nervous system and artificially stimulate it. But this is nothing new either. Cochlear implants or implants for deep brain stimulation work in the same way. These implants contain electronics that generate the stimulating impulses and are normally located inside a rather large hermetic case from which a long wire comes out. At the tip of the wire is an electrode that is placed near the part of the body that needs to be stimulated.

Our goal is now to develop particularly small implants – so-called microimplants. These can be placed near the organs or nerves that are to be targeted. There, small electrical impulses stimulate the nerve tissue.

Giagka: In addition to the applications already mentioned, there are other diseases that could be treated with such technologies. During my doctoral thesis, I conducted research on implants for the spinal cord, which aim to restore the mobility of people paralyzed by a spinal cord injury. But all these applications will only be possible if we have a better understanding of the nervous system. A better understanding of the nervous system and the signal transmission in our body is the way to tailor-made therapies. Once we know which nerve or nerve cell produces the desired effect, we can interfere with that nerve or nerve cell. We have to create specific tools for this. We could treat diseases that were previously untreatable, and we could better control and target therapies – that is very exciting!
Dr. Vasiliki GiagkaMEDICA Magazine, Interviews, 23.11.2020
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