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Two patches of pig skin are being cut into by surgical tools. One of the tools is part of the STAR robotic system, the other is tool is wielded by a human surgeon.

In Flesh-Cutting Task, Autonomous Robot Surgeon Beats Human Surgeons

Imagine that you’re on the operating table, waiting for surgeons to cut a tumor out of your flesh. You want their cuts to be as precise and accurate as possible, leaving behind no tumor fragments that might cause the cancer to recur, yet also not removing too much healthy tissue. 

Rather than an expert human surgeon, you might want the Smart Tissue Autonomous Robot (STAR) hovering over you. In a recent set of experiments, STAR’s inventors showed that it makes more precise cuts than expert surgeons, and damages less of the surrounding flesh. The researchers presented their results at the recent robotics conference IROS 2017.

“I really believe that this is the future of surgery,” says study coauthor Axel Krieger, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Maryland.

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Researchers Canan Dagdeviren and Giovanni Traverso demonstrate their flexible, ingestible device by placing it in their mouths and posing for a photo in a lab.

A Fitbit for the Stomach

We admit to a weird fascination with electronics that can be swallowed. Whether its robots, cameras, or edible actuators, we find them James Bond-level cool.

So here’s another one for you: A flexible sensor developed at MIT and Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston can monitor movements in the stomach, sense ingestion, and power itself for at least two days without degrading. The device, described this week in the journal Nature Biomedical Engineering, could be used to record how frequently a person is eating and help monitor various gut disorders.

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light-activated nanoparticles shown glowing on lab tray

Light-Activated Nanoparticles Help Fight Drug-Resistant Superbugs

Our strongest antibiotics are increasingly defenseless against the nastiest bacterial infections, but the use of new light-activated nanoparticles could give those old drugs a fighting chance. In a paper published today in Science Advances, researchers reported that quantum dots—light-activated semiconductor nanoparticles—when engineered at a particular size can sneak into bacteria, disrupt their cellular processes, and make them more susceptible to antibiotics.

The discovery could breathe new life into old antibiotics, says Anushree Chatterjee, a chemical and biological engineer at the University of Colorado Boulder, who co-authored the report. It also exemplifies how electrical engineering can be used to address problems typically approached purely though medicine.

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The PathVis system being field tested

Fighting Cholera With a Smartphone

Global health experts don’t worry about if a major infectious disease outbreak will occur; it’s just a matter of when.

A daunting barrier in that ongoing fight against infectious diseases—including malaria, dengue fever, Zika and more—is the ability to detect infectious agents in the environment before an outbreak begins.

In June, the Vodafone Americas Foundation recognized a technology attempting to tackle exactly that problem in its ninth annual Wireless Innovation Project competition. A Purdue University spin-off called PathVis won first place and $300,000 for a smartphone-based platform designed to enable anyone to rapidly measure the level of a pathogen in an area and report back to health authorities with real-time data of when and where that pathogen was detected.

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A boy wearing a headband with an EEG sensor holds a smartphone and plays a game.

Brain-Controlled Game Helps Kids With ADHD Improve Mental Focus

Some people unfairly blame video games for the seeming proliferation of kids today with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). But the startup NeuroPlus hopes to convince people that its brain-controlled games can actually improve ADHD symptoms in kids. In a pilot study, kids with ADHD showed better focus and attention after 10 weeks of playing the games while wearing a brain-sensing headset.

Brain-training games have gotten a bad reputation recently. One market leader, Luminosity, was fined in 2016 for making misleading marketing claims, and scientists have conducted studies showing that its cognitive-improvement games don’t work. But NeuroPlus CEO Jake Stauch says his company is different. “We did this study because we’re an evidence-based company,” he says. “We don’t want to be a fly-by-night company selling snake oil.”

The pilot study was conducted using an EEG-reading headset that’s already on the market (the Muse headband), but NeuroPlus has developed its own headset for sale with its finished system. Stauch says the company already has a working prototype of the headset, and just launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for manufacturing. 

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Image: Fudan University/Wiley

Carbon Nanotube Thread Could Generate Electricity From The Bloodstream

To power wearable electronics, engineers have for years been tinkering with ways to generate electricity from our bodies. They’ve cooked up schemes to convert heartbeats, footsteps, and muscle motions into electricity.

Now a team from Fudan University in China has come up with a method for generating electricity from blood flow using a tiny fiber spun from carbon nanotubes. The idea is that the fiber could be implanted in a blood vessel to harvest the energy from flowing blood. They’ve presented the rudimentary concept in Angewandte Chemie, and haven’t tested the device in animals yet.

To make the 0.8-millimeter-diameter fibers, they either wrap a plastic fiber with an ordered array of carbon nanotubes, or simply twist a carbon nanotube sheet to make a yarn-like thread.

The researchers call the system a mini version of hydropower, but the principle is different. When the fiber comes in contact with salt solution, an electrical double layer builds up on the interface between immersed nanotubes and the solution, with the nanotube surface becoming negatively charged and a thin layer of the solution becoming positively charged.

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Two football players sitting next to each other on a bench, one has a VR headset on

Using VR to Diagnose Concussions

Jamshid Ghajar once asked a NFL football “spotter”—a person who watches games for possible brain injuries—how he recognized a player with a concussion. The spotter replied, “Well, if he kneels down and shakes his head, he may have a concussion.”

As a neurosurgeon and director of the Stanford Concussion and Brain Performance Center, Ghajar was more than a little dismayed with that answer. “Spotting” and other sideline assessments for concussions—such as having players memorize and recall words, or track a moving finger with their eyes—are “just okay,” Ghajar described on Tuesday to a small crowd at the MIT Media Lab in Cambridge, Massachusetts, during a technology conference hosted by ApplySci. Such techniques are “not really picking up a biological signal” of concussion, he added.

In search of a more accurate, yet speedy way to diagnose concussions, Ghajar and a team at SyncThink, a Palo Alto, California-based company, have developed a mobile eye tracking technology to diagnose concussions based on clinical research. Their goal is to transform concussion diagnoses from guesswork into an objective test.

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Woman holding a cellphone presses two fingers from each hand to the electrode pads of the stick-on Kardia Mobile heart monitor

Smartphone Heart Monitor Beats Doctors at Diagnosing Atrial Fibrillation

“Doc, how’s my ticker?” In olden days (like 5 years ago), patients went to their general practitioners with such anxious inquiries, looking for cardiac checkups and reassurances. These days, consumers can buy a heart monitor that’s about the size of a piece of gum and stick it on the back of their smartphone, then check their heart rate as often as they like. 

But how good are the results from such a consumer gadget? A new study that tested the Kardia Mobile heart monitor, made by AliveCor, found that the device detected more cases of the dangerous heart condition atrial fibrillation than general practitioners offering routine care. 

For the study, published in the journal Circulation, researchers in Wales enrolled 1000 patients aged 65 and above. Half of the patients received routine medical care from general practitioners, the other half were instructed to use the Kardia monitor twice a week to take 30-second recordings of their heart rate. During the 1-year study, the Kardia diagnosed 19 patients while the doctors diagnosed 5.

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A probe that assesses mitochondrial redox state in real-time by shining a laser light on a tissue to obtain vital information about cell health.

Tiny Laser Device Predicts Cardiac Arrests

A laser-based device has shown it can predict cardiac arrests in rats during open-heart surgery—and it could someday raise the standard of medical care by doing the same for human patients. The amazing predictive quality comes from determining whether or not living cells are receiving enough oxygen to remain healthy and function properly.

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Pear Therapeutics receives FDA clearance for an app to treat substance use disorder

First Prescription App for Substance Abuse Approved by FDA

Drug and alcohol users will soon be able to get prescriptions for a mobile app that could help them stay clean. Developed by Pear Therapeutics in Boston and San Francisco, the app helps people recovering from addiction stay on track while participating in outpatient treatment. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) last week approved the prescription-only software for the American market. 

The FDA’s decision marks the first time in the United States that software has been approved to treat disease, says Corey McCann, founder and CEO of Pear Therapeutics. The company plans to make the digital therapeutic available commercially in 2018, he says. 

The app, called reSET, is aimed at people with substance use disorders involving alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, and stimulants. Patients prescribed the software must be involved in some type of outpatient treatment. Only a prescription will enable the patient to unlock the software and use it. 

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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.

Eliza Strickland
New York City
Emily Waltz
Megan Scudellari

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