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Tourette Syndrome Patient: My Life With a Brain Implant

Before she had a piece of electronics implanted in her brain to treat her Tourette’s syndrome, Kayley Thorpe says her life could be horrifyingly predictable. During her middle school years, when her physical tics were at their worst, “I’d start each morning by punching myself in the face,” she says.

But there were also cruel surprises every day. If she walked into a grocery store, “the question was, at what point would my whole body start to jerk,” she says, “and would I collapse on the floor?"

What unified the routines and the surprises was that they were both entirely out of her control. “You’re like a passenger in your own body,” Thorpe says. “You know it looks crazy. You know other people can control their bodies, but you can’t.”

By the time she turned 19, she’d decided that an experimental brain implant was her only hope. By that point, Thorpe had been living with Tourette’s for a decade. She had tried more than a dozen different medications and many different types of therapy, but nothing reduced her physical and verbal tics enough to make her life bearable. She was using a wheelchair to navigate her daily life. “I’d really run out of options,” she says.

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The electronic mosquito prototype on a volunteer's wrist

E-Mosquito Drinks Your Blood to Keep You Healthy

Mosquitoes are some of the most adept bloodsuckers on Earth. With a quick jab, sharp mouthparts plunge into human skin in search of a juicy blood vessel.

It’s no surprise, then, that bioengineers have used the pest as inspiration for a device to periodically and independently sample the blood of individuals with diabetes. Fingerpricking, the most common method used today, can be a tedious and painful process, and many companies have raced to develop alternative approaches, including glucose sensor implants and semi-automated monitoring devices.

Enter the “e-Mosquito.” Since 2007, a team at the University of Calgary in Canada has been developing a fully autonomous, minimally invasive device that is pre-programmed to “bite” one’s skin at various times during the day to monitor blood glucose levels. They recently premiered their latest prototype, a watch-like device that taps into capillaries under the skin and deposits a drip of blood onto a glucose-testing strip.

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A white accordion-like worm robot lies next to a ruler that show it to be 12 centimeters long. Wires trail out of one end of the robot.

A Colonoscopy Robot and Other Weird Biomedical Tech From IEEE's Biggest Robotics Conference

A host of bizarre biomedical robots turned up at ICRA 2017, IEEE’s flagship robotics conference, which took place earlier this month in Singapore. We saw swallowable robots that poke the stomach with needles and worm-like robots that explore the colon. Equal parts unnerving and fascinating, these bots aim to help people—perhaps in ways we hope we never need. After sifting through this year’s presentations, we’re bringing you the five most terrifying and inventive video demonstrations. ​

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An infant lying on its back

AI Detects Autism in Infants (Again)

Back in February, we brought you news of a deep-learning algorithm able to predict autism in two-year-olds based on structural brain changes beginning at six months of age. 

Now, the same group at the University of North Carolina has again applied machine learning to the goal of predicting autism, with equally impressive results. This time, instead of structural changes, they were able to detect changes in brain function of six-month-olds that predicted if the children would later develop autism.

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Drawing of a head in silhouette with a thought bubble inside the head reading: "Hello world! I am typing."

Director of Typing-by-Brain Project Discusses How Facebook Will Get Inside Your Head

When Facebook’s Mark Chevillet describes the company’s new “typing by brain” initiative, he has a way of keeping it from sounding totally crazy.

Chevillet is a neuroscience PhD, not some executive dreaming up vaporware, and he has a firm grasp on the current state of brain science. So when he spoke during a recent meeting at at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Lab, listeners nodded along as he described a brain-computer interface that would read out 100 words per minute from a speech center in the user’s brain, and do so with a non-invasive technology that could rest on the user’s head. 

Then he stopped talking and the facts came rushing back in: No such technology exists today. The current record for typing-by-brain is eight words per minute, and that was achieved using implanted electrodes. No one really understands where speech lives in the brain. 

Chevillet acknowledged these facts, and agreed that Facebook’s goal is ambitious. “There’s plenty of technical and research risk involved,” he said. “But we’re not looking for the next guaranteed incremental step, we’re looking for transformative steps.”

Chevillet, who’s running the Facebook project within the hardware skunkworks known as Building 8, also gave the audience a few clues about how his team will tackle the challenges. But his vague descriptions of the technology weren’t enough to satisfy the experts that IEEE Spectrum later spoke with.

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Green photo of brain cross-section

Researchers Invent New Method for Non-Invasive Deep Brain Stimulation

When Edward Boyden and Nir Grossman at the MIT Media Lab in the spring of 2014 met for a brainstorming session, they made a list of every possible way one could artificially excite brain cells. They produced a long list that included variations on multiple types of energy—electric fields, ultrasound, magnets, light—each with significant drawbacks. But there was one promising method on the list that hadn’t been tried on the brain.

They called it temporal interference—a take on electrical stimulation—and in a paper published today in Cell, they describe how they successfully used this method to selectively and non-invasively excite deep structures in the mouse brain. If it can be refined, the technique could be used as a research tool to better understand the brain’s neural circuits. It might also offer a non-surgical treatment option for people with central nervous system disorders such as Parkinson’s disease. 

For decades, researchers have been experimenting with electrical stimulation of the brain to do things like treat serious disease and improve athletic performance. The communication between neurons is, after all, just an electrical signal, and that activity can be induced or interrupted artificially by an external electrical pulse. The idea behind therapeutic electrical stimulation, or electroceuticals, is to get neural circuits firing in areas of the brain that might not be functioning optimally. 

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A cartoon of a woman in a lab coat and a man in a blue shirt. The woman is holding a button in one hand and looking at a computer. The man is picking up a glass of water.

Vagus Nerve Stimulation Succeeds in Long-Term Stroke Recovery Trial

An implanted device can improve the ability of certain stroke victims to relearn movement, according to the results of a nine-month-long study released today at the International Neuromodulation Society Conference in Edinburgh, UK. Doctors working with Dallas, Tex.,-based Microtransponder implanted a device that electrically stimulates the vagus nerve on the left side of a patient’s neck at the exact moments when he or she is doing movements that are components of standard physical therapy sessions. At the end of six weeks, 75 percent of patients who had their vagus nerve stimulated during physical therapy saw a clinically meaningful benefit, compared with 33 percent of those in the therapy-only control group, according to Microtranspnder. That number went up to 88 percent at 90 days, and continued to show gains at six months and nine months.

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A cartoon of a smartphone with a caduceus on the screen surrounded by the heads of various types of medical personell

FDA Assembles Team to Oversee AI Revolution in Health

Mobile health apps and wearable devices that use artificial intelligence to help diagnose or even treat medical conditions pose a new regulatory challenge for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The government agency has responded by starting to assemble a team of computer scientists and engineers to help oversee and anticipate future developments in AI-driven medical software.

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A translucent fish with bones and organs visible

Radio-Controlled Genes

Peter Parker gained the ability to sense imminent danger thanks to the bite of a radioactive spider. Now, in real life, researchers in Baltimore have enabled a rat brain to sense electromagnetic fields thanks to the gene of a catfish.

Many animals—birds, bees, lobsters, and newts, just to name a few—can sense the Earth’s weak magnetic field, but not humans. (There is some debate over that exclusion.) A newly discovered gene, belonging to the glass catfish, appears to give cells the ability to respond to magnetic fields and can be used to non-invasively manipulate brain and heart cells.

The researchers say the technique opens the possibility of creating wireless biological heart pacemakers, treating epilepsy, or even constructing brain-machine interfaces that use electromagnetic signals to communicate with human cells.

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A newborn infant asleep in a hospital bassinet, its hand outstretched toward the camera.

Stretchable Electronic Patch for Infants in Clinical Trials

Stretchable electronics are now being tested in the clinic for monitoring the health of particularly fragile patients—premature infants in neonatal intensive care. Such infants are require constant monitoring of their vital signs. Today that's done by taping wired sensors to the skin, but the wires obstruct movement, the sensors can be pulled off, and tape can damage fragile immature skin. Materials scientist John Rogers of Northwestern University, in Evanston, Ill., hopes to replace those wired sensors with thin wireless flexible sensing patches.

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The Human OS

IEEE Spectrum’s biomedical engineering blog, featuring the wearable sensors, big data analytics, and implanted devices that enable new ventures in personalized medicine.

 
Editor
Eliza Strickland
New York City
Contributor
Emily Waltz
Nashville
 
Contributor
Megan Scudellari
Boston
 

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