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Man checking heart rate on smartwatch with app open on his phon

The Painstaking Task of Studying Digital Health

As digital health continues to explode on smartphones worldwide, researchers are digging in, trying to figure out which of the new offerings actually work. These scientists aim to determine, using top notch clinical trials, the effectiveness of medical apps, telemedicine and other kinds of digital therapeutics and diagnostics.

It’s a big task. The pace at which software developers are commercializing digital health tools surely exceeds the pace at which scientists can study them. The good news: Unlike traditional medicine, there’s no shortage of data in digital medicine.

Here, we give you three studies, all published this month, that illustrate the different ways scientists are putting digital health through the clinical trial wringer. The conclusions show just how messy and nuanced digital health research can get. 

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Jason Barnes with the robotic drumming prosthesis.

Drummer With Cyborg Arm Wants to Take It On Tour

Because we write so much about futuristic, cutting edge technology, we’re often covering things that are so brand new that only one of them may exist in the world. What we don’t often discuss, though, is how frustrating it must be to get to test one of these 0ne-off inventions out, only to have to give it right back after whatever research you’re participating in has concluded.

Georgia Tech professor Gil Weinberg has been developing prosthetic limbs that can play music with the help of Jason Barnes, a drummer and amputee. One cyborg arm Barnes has been fitted with allows him to play faster than humanly possible. He's used it in enough performances—including one at the Kennedy Center—that he considers the arm to be a part of his musical identity now. But here’s the rub: The cybernetic arm is technically the property of Georgia Tech, and doesn't belong to Barnes.

Today, Weinberg and Barnes are launching a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds to build a custom prosthetic drumming arm that Jason can take on tour. It won’t be cheap, but Barnes thinks it’ll be worth every penny. With it, he’ll be able to create music that no other human has ever been able to.

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Illustration showing the inside of a cell

Nanobots Glide Through Living Cells

It’s time to let go of the idea that nanomachines are simply life-size technology shrunk down to a very small size, vis-à-vis the 1960s movie Fantastic Voyage.

In fact, a lot of nanotechnology is much, much cooler. That includes a corkscrew-shaped nanomotor described this week in the journal Advanced Materials. Using small, rotating magnetic fields, researchers steered the itty bitty machines inside of living cells to trace the letters “N” and “M,” corresponding to the word nanomotor.

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Looking at data on a screen after a successful implementation

Electrical Pulses and Neural Code Boost Memory Storage

Researchers have figured out how to strengthen the storage of new memories in the human brain using electrical stimulation and neural patterns that were previously used to store other memories.

In case that sentence didn’t get stored properly in your own brain, we’ll say it another way: Scientists now have the power—using electrical impulses—to improve storage of new information in the human brain. 

The report, published last week in the Journal of Neural Engineering, is the first to crack the neural codes linked to specific, individual memories in the human hippocampus, says Robert Hampson, a professor at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, who co-authored the report. The research is one of several approaches that could one day lead to “brain prostheses” to fill in for lost memory.

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A millimeter-scale programmable nerve stimulator looks like a lumpy rectangle with two metal posts next to a much larger U.S. penny.

Ultrasound-Powered Nerve Implant Works Deep in Body

Engineers at Stanford University have built a new kind of millimeter-scale nerve-stimulating implant that beats all others of its size at a crucial parameter: how deep inside the body it can operate.

The 6.5-millimeter-long programmable implant can receive both power and data via ultrasound through more than 10.5 centimeters of tissue. That’s deep enough for most any application, say its inventors. And because of its versatility and small size—with some modification it could be injected through a needle rather than requiring real surgery—they envision that it will greatly expand the number of conditions treated with electrical stimulation of the body’s nerves.

So far, most of those treatments have focused on stimulating spinal nerves for controlling pain and the vagus nerve for epilepsy and depression. However, researchers have been working on expanding the role of such “electroceutical” treatments to include ending postpartum bleeding, alleviating rheumatoid arthritis, and restoring bladder control, among many others.

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A Zipline drone taking off.

Zipline's Bigger, Faster Drones Will Deliver Blood in the United States This Year

We've been following Zipline very closely for the last few years. The delivery drone startup has been operating in Rwanda since October of 2016, using small autonomous fixed-wing aircraft to paradrop critical blood products to rural medical clinics. The system is able to get blood from a centralized distribution center to where it's needed in minutes, independent of time of day, traffic, or weather. Zipline now manages 20 percent of rural Rwanda's blood supply, and has flown more than 300,000 kilometers (km) worth of commercial deliveries, carrying some 7,000 units of blood.

Today, Zipline is announcing major upgrades to its entire delivery system, introducing a bigger drone that can deliver blood faster and more efficiently than ever. The new hardware is already flying in Rwanda, and Zipline plans to bring their drones to the U.S. to demonstrate medical product delivery in suburban and rural areas later this year.

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Person wearing a Coleman stomach system

Tummy Tech Tracks Electrical Activity for Signs of Indigestion

A new wearable device that non-invasively monitors electrical activity in the stomach could help people with digestive problems determine with greater precision whether treatments or diets are working.

If clinically validated, the stomach sensor could also help revive a medical technology called electrogastrography (EGG) that once piqued gastroenterologists’ interest, but has largely fallen out of favor owing to controversy surrounding its diagnostic relevance.

“It’s promising technology,” says Thomas Abell, a gastroenterologist who routinely uses EGG at the University of Louisville but was not involved in the new study. “This might prove to be a clinically useful tool that people accept.”

EGG works much like an electrocardiogram, except instead of recording electrical activity of the heart it picks up electrical signals that travel through stomach muscles to control gastric contractions.

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Roam Robotics' skiing exoskeleton in action on the slopes.

Roam Robotics Announces $2500 Soft Exoskeleton For Skiers and Snowboarders

Over the past few years, we've heard some vague suggestions that powered exoskeletons will, “at some point soon,” be available for applications besides meeting the needs of people doing physical rehabilitation, industrial workers, and the elderly. The rest of us could get plenty of use out of exoskeletons too, for any situation in which our bodies need to support more weight for longer than would otherwise be comfortable. It's understandable that most exoskeleton companies aren't going for the consumer market right away, because exoskeletons are expensive, and folks like you and me simply wouldn't be able to justify the cost.

Yesterday, Roam Robotics (which was birthed from company-known-for-doing-weird-things, Otherlab) announced that it's planning on selling a new kind of exoskeleton designed to offer leg support to skiers and snowboarders. The cost? Just $2500. The gadget, powered by soft pneumatic actuators, will be rentable at ski resorts for way, way less than it’s full purchase price. Roam says that without any training at all, it'll enable you to ski better for longer without getting nearly as tired.

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A mouse sniffs a small red cube.

Researchers Steer Cyborg Mice Through Maze with Brain Stimulation

How do you know if a cyborg mouse with mind-controlling hardware in its brain is really under human command as it navigates a maze? If it scurries right past a sexy lady mouse and an enticing pile of food to reach the end. 

If you want to get straight to the point (like the mice), scroll down to the video below and start watching at 2:05. 

A team of Korean researchers created their ingenious cyborg mice by tapping into a brain circuit involved when an animal investigates a new object or gives chase to prey.

They outfitted each mouse with headgear that served a dual purpose: It held a fiber optic thread that penetrated the skull to stimulate that object-craving region of the brain (via a stimulation technique called optogenetics), and it also suspended an object in front of the mouse’s head. 

Illustration shows a mouse wearing headgear that suspends an object in front of its head and stimulates its brain.

Then the researchers, led by engineer Phill-Seung Lee and biologist Daesoo Kim from the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST), used a remote control to guide the animals’ movements. By sending a signal to the headgear, they could switch on the brain stimulator and cause a mouse to scamper straight ahead, or they could swing the suspended object left or right, thus steering the animal into left or right turns. The highly motivated mouse kept hurrying toward that desirable object, but found that it was always just out of reach. 

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Photo-illustration of an AI computer analyzing heart scans.

AI Cardiologist Aces Its First Medical Exam

Rima Arnaout wants to be clear: The AI she created to analyze heart scans, which easily outperformed human experts on its task, is not ready to replace cardiologists. 

It was a limited task, she notes, just the first step in what a cardiologist does when evaluating an echocardiogram (the image produced by bouncing sound waves off the heart). “The best technique is still inside the head of the trained echocardiographer,” she says.

But with experimental artificial intelligence systems making such rapid progress in the medical realm, particularly on tasks involving medical images, Arnaout does see the potential for big changes in her profession. And when her 10-year-old cousin expressed the desire to be a radiologist when she grows up, Arnaout had some clear advice: “I told her that she should learn to code,” she says with a laugh. 

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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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