Tiny Implants Could Give Humans Self-Healing Superpowers
A concept drawing explains the goals of the ElectRX program.
Credit: DARPA

Wolverine, Ghost Rider, the Incredible Hulk — all of these characters have at least one awesome trait in common: the ability to heal themselves. And now, the Pentagon wants to give ordinary people this superhuman capability.

A new military-sponsored program aims to develop a tiny device that can be implanted in the body, where it will use electrical impulses to monitor the body's organs, healing these crucial parts when they become infected or injured.

Known as Electrical Prescriptions, or ElectRx, the program could reduce dependence on pharmaceutical drugs and offer a new way to treat illnesses, according to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the branch of the U.S. Department of Defense responsible for developing the program. [5 Crazy Technologies That Are Revolutionizing Biotech]

"The technology DARPA plans to develop through the ElectRx program could fundamentally change the manner in which doctors diagnose, monitor and treat injury and illness," Doug Weber, program manager for DARPA's biological technologies office, said in a statement.

The implant that DARPA hopes to develop is something akin to a tiny, intelligent pacemaker, Weber said. The device would be implanted into the body, where it would continually assess a person's condition and provide any necessary stimulus to the nerves to help maintain healthy organ function, he added.

The idea for the technology is based on a biological process known as neuromodulation, in which the peripheral nervous system (the nerves that connect every other part of the body to the brain and spinal cord) monitors the status of internal organs and regulate the body's responses to infection and disease. When a person is sick or injured, this natural process can sometimes be thrown off, according to DARPA. Instead of making a person feel better, neuromodulation can actually exacerbate a condition, causing pain, inflammation and a weakened immune system.

But with the help of an electrically charged implant, DARPA says it can keep neuromodulation under control. Electric impulses from the device will stimulate the nerve patterns that help the body heal itself and keep the out-of-whack nerve stimulus patterns that cause a sick person even greater harm from doing damage.

DARPA hopes to develop a device so tinythat it can be implanted using only a needle. Such a small implant would be a huge improvement over similar neuromodulation devices already in use today, most of which are about the size of a deck of cards and require invasive surgery to implant, according to DARPA.

And the miniature size of the device has another advantage: It can be placed exactly where it is needed at nerve endings. An implant as small as a nerve fiber could minimize the side effects caused by implants whose electric impulses aren't sent directly into nerve channels, DARPA officials said.

The device could help treat a host of painful, inflammatory conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis, systemic inflammatory response syndrome (a condition that causes inflammation throughout the body) and inflammatory bowel disease. And if the ElectRx program is a success, it could also lead to the development of implants that help treat brain and mental-health disorders, such as epilepsy, traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression, according to DARPA.

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