Author(s): Katie Taylor
A 2001 pull-out from New Scientist magazine, titled Small Is Great, suggested that we could one day have health monitors small enough to circulate in our bloodstream. It's a concept that's quickly coming closer to fruition, with tiny tech offering a number of benefits.
These solutions don't involve mini computers, but concern molecules of 100 nanometres or below that are usually guided via magnetic fields.
Google X's Baseline project, for example, aims to detect cancer in its early stages. Digestion of a pill would allow nanoparticles "decorated" with markers that attach to cancerous cells to be released into the bloodstreams of patients. Andrew Conrad, Head of Google Life Sciences, explains that magnetism would then be used to intravenously recollect these molecules in the lower arm, allowing their findings to be analysed by a smart wrist band. It's one of several cancer-focused smart nanoparticle studies, and could dictate future feature sets for the next generations of wearables.
The concept of enhancing the blood with self-healing capabilities beyond human norms is another area of interest. The Houston Methodist Research Institute has suggested that treatment of blood clots could one day involve magnetic nanoparticles. These carry doses of the drugs currently used to break up the clots, and can be steered externally to the required site of action. Trials outlined that "the proposed nanoconstructs demonstrate [about] a 100-fold increase in dissolution rate" of the clots, thanks to direct application of the drug and the heat caused by the magnetic excitation of the particles.
Deep brain stimulation (DBS) is a surgical procedure for disorders with a neurological basis, including chronic pain, Parkinson's disease and even severe depression. The treatment currently involves installing a medical implant that can internally stimulate the brain, but similar effects have more recently been achieved through transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) — a non-invasive therapy involving pulses of electric currents that penetrate through the skull. Scientists are now looking to use nanoparticles to enable more-accessible stimulation of the tissue from within, and are experimenting by injecting nanoparticles into the brains of mice. Injected molecules appear to remain localised and to only interact with the tissue when heated by the magnetic field, and so could provide an alternative that's less invasive than DBS but more focussed than TMS.
Industry analysts are taking this idea further, speculating that precise methods of brain stimulation could substitute recreational drugs in the future. Wearable products like Thync employ neurosignaling techniques to "manage your energy, stress, and sleep". Such a facility could also help to treat patients suffering from addictions by mimicking the chemical effects of a drug or artificially exciting neural reward pathways.
We're a little way off from intelligent suntan cream that alerts your smartphone when it's time to find some shade, or from the trackable "smart blood" featured in the 2015 James Bond film, Spectre. But the concept of technological micro medicine is gaining momentum.