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Electric Device That Tells You When to Pee

Researchers develop neuroprosthetic to restore bladder control after spinal cord injury

2 min read
Electric Device That Tells You When to Pee
Photo: Daniel Chew

People who suffer severe spinal cord injuries and subsequent paralysis often lose bladder control too. But a new electronic device may restore that bodily function. British neuroscientist James Fawcett and his colleagues have developed a neuroprosthetic device that replaces damaged nerves that convey the bladder's sense of fullness. The device also blocks or triggers bladder emptying on cue through electrical stimulation. Fawcett and his team successfully demonstrated the technology in rats and published their results yesterday in Science Translational Medicine.

In a normal bladder, nerves sense when the bladder begins to fill up and electrochemically send a message to the brain. When the signals say it's time to go, the bladder contracts, the sphincter relaxes, and presto: urination. But a spinal cord injury can disrupt the signals to the brain and eliminate the fullness sensation and muscle control. A person with this kind of injury is forced to empty his bladder with a catheter.

In Fawcett's design, parts of the spinal nerves called dorsal roots are teased out into rootlets; the rootlets are placed in an implanted microchannel electrode interface. The microchannels record signals from the nerves and can determine, by the amount of activity, when the bladder is getting full. A stimulator connected to the nerves sends high-frequency stimulation to stop the bladder from emptying itself. When the user is ready to urinate, he or she can push a button that causes the device to deliver low-frequency stimulation that allows the bladder to empty. The researchers envision a handheld device that buzzes to let the user know it's time to go. (Parents: wouldn't it be great to have a buzzer like that for potty training preschoolers?)

Of course it will be a while before the device is ready for humans. In the rat experiments, the rootlets only survived for a few months after they were placed in the microchannels. That lifespan will have to be increased considerably before the device would be useful in humans, the authors said.

In a separate approach, researchers at the University of Louisville have been experimenting with epidural stimulation of the spinal cord to restore bladder control and other functions in people with spinal cord injuries. The work has been largely successful, but experiments have only been completed in a few people. 

Illustration: Evangelos Delivopoulos

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Are You Ready for Workplace Brain Scanning?

Extracting and using brain data will make workers happier and more productive, backers say

11 min read
A photo collage showing a man wearing a eeg headset while looking at a computer screen.
Nadia Radic

Get ready: Neurotechnology is coming to the workplace. Neural sensors are now reliable and affordable enough to support commercial pilot projects that extract productivity-enhancing data from workers’ brains. These projects aren’t confined to specialized workplaces; they’re also happening in offices, factories, farms, and airports. The companies and people behind these neurotech devices are certain that they will improve our lives. But there are serious questions about whether work should be organized around certain functions of the brain, rather than the person as a whole.

To be clear, the kind of neurotech that’s currently available is nowhere close to reading minds. Sensors detect electrical activity across different areas of the brain, and the patterns in that activity can be broadly correlated with different feelings or physiological responses, such as stress, focus, or a reaction to external stimuli. These data can be exploited to make workers more efficient—and, proponents of the technology say, to make them happier. Two of the most interesting innovators in this field are the Israel-based startup InnerEye, which aims to give workers superhuman abilities, and Emotiv, a Silicon Valley neurotech company that’s bringing a brain-tracking wearable to office workers, including those working remotely.

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