Medical implants: Wireless networking
Microelectronic implants are fitted permanently in the human body to treat the illnesses of millions of people via nerve stimulation. To improve patient care even further, researchers are working on digitalizing and connecting implants.
By Julian Hörndlein
Prof. Dr. Thomas Stieglitz, professor of biomedical microtechnology at the University of Freiburg and head of the VDE DGBMT expert committee on neuroprosthetics and intelligent implants, points to another research trend in medical implants. He and his team have been working on intelligent prostheses and implants as part of the INOPRO project, a sister project of INTAKT. “We use familiar technologies for new applications,” Stieglitz explains. For example, they have developed deep brain stimulation to help patients with Parkinson’s disease. Contact points are implanted in the brain to monitor the course of the disease. In addition to Parkinson's disease, deep brain stimulation can be used to treat severe psychiatric diseases. According to Stieglitz, studies are currently underway in Europe to approve it for the treatment of depression. He also believes electrical stimulation has the potential to replace medication. “We're targeting lifestyle diseases such as hypertension and diabetes, but also diseases like Crohn’s, COPD or rheumatoid arthritis,” says Stieglitz – particularly when patients don’t respond well to medication.
Once the implants have been correctly positioned in the body, the next step is to get them communicating with each other. “If I have a vagus nerve stimulator, a prosthetic knee and a pacemaker, it’s helpful for each device to know what the others are doing,” says Stieglitz. “The trend is certainly toward more integration,” agrees Prof. Dr. med. Thomas Lenarz, deputy chairman of VDE DGBMT and a professor at Hanover Medical School. His research focuses on hearing impairments and implants. The cochlear implants he regularly uses are now “entirely digital systems that rely on connectivity.” They can communicate with each other and with hearing aids, as he explains in our detailed interview (see box). Connecting them to other types of implants is the next item on the agenda.
Implants exchange data – securely
An unavoidable implication of this connectivity is that the implants all need to store data in the same place. Using its platform, the INTAKT consortium has already realized technologies to enable this. “There are radio frequency bands that are approved for use in implants,” says Roman Ruff from Fraunhofer IBMT. These are supplemented by infrared communication, particularly for implants close to the skin. Of course, one aspect that has to be considered when implants exchange information is data security. As part of the EU project AI4HealthSec, Fraunhofer IBMT is currently working on a software platform that guards against cyber attacks in healthcare and has proposed connected active implants as a use case. However, Ruff believes there is not much risk of malicious bystanders being able to interfere with people’s active implants. “The implants and system components outside the body have a very short range, so it would be very difficult to compromise these systems using near-field communication,” he points out.
While both scientists emphasize that the development of connected implants is very much still at the research stage and not ready for the market, they are convinced that the technology will help many people in future. Stieglitz: “Getting the implants to talk to each other is a transformational discipline.”
Julian Hörndlein is a technology journalist in Nuremberg.