Electronic Medicine Goes Mainstream

Scientific American
Stimulation of the nervous system could replace drugs for inflammatory and autoimmune conditions
By Kevin J. Tracey | Feb 17, 2015



Bryan Christie

In Brief

  • Exposure to heat, pressure, light or chemicals sets in motion a process to ensure that bodily organs do not overreact to these stresses.
  • Nerve signals that link the brain and the rest of the body inhibit the making of immune molecules that cause inflammation.
  • Electrical stimulation of neural pathways with an implanted medical device may assist the body in suppressing inflammation.
  • Bioelectronic medicine is the name of the new discipline that uses electrical stimulation to treat inflammation and other disorders.
I am a brain surgeon who is fascinated by inflammation. Along with my laboratory colleagues, I examine molecules that cause inflammation so that we can discover methods for alleviating the pain, swelling and tissue damage that is a consequence of many diseases.
Some of this work has already benefited patients. In 1987 I published the results of an experiment that targeted an inflammatory molecule called tumor necrosis factor, or TNF, to rescue lab baboons from the consequences of lethal infection—a study that contributed to the discovery of a new class of drugs for inflammatory, autoimmune and other diseases that disrupt the normal functioning of the body’s immunological defenses.
As a neurosurgeon, I am also intensely interested in the workings of the brain. A surprising discovery we made in the late 1990s, again involving TNF, merged insights from neuroscience and immunology. We inadvertently discovered that neurological reflexes—predictable responses to certain sensory stimuli—block the production of TNF. This insight culminated in an invention I devised to treat inflammation using small, electrical nerve stimulators implanted in patients.
The use of nerve-stimulating electronic devices to treat inflammation and reverse disability is laying the foundation for a new discipline called bioelectronic medicine. It is being tested in clinical studies of patients with rheumatoid arthritis and other diseases. It is based on a deceptively simple concept of harnessing the body’s natural reflexes to develop an array of effective, safe and economical alternatives to many pills and injectable drugs. By precisely targeting the biological processes underlying disease, this nerve-stimulating technology should help avoid the troublesome side effects of many drugs.

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