Mainstream medicine has traditionally had a heavy reliance on chemical-based pharmaceuticals, drugs designed to alter the molecular pathways within the body, to achieve specific medical results. Despite the benefits provided by many of these drugs, unwanted side effects, some of them quite severe, plague the industry — and some drugs simply aren’t nearly as effective as they’re meant to be. However, over the past few years, researchers may have come up with an alternative to this hit-or-miss practice.
Electroceuticals, or bioelectronics, is the emerging practice of stimulating specific areas of the nervous system to achieve similar results to the effects of chemical pharmaceuticals. The concept was first found in 2002 by neurosurgeon Kevin Tracey while he was experimenting with a specific drug to see if it could limit the damage caused by the swelling of the brain in stroke victims, a dangerous response by the body’s immune system to the individual’s injury. The drug’s application was successful, shutting down the immune response not only in the brain, but also the rest of the body — but his team’s findings went deeper than that.
What they discovered was that the drug was affecting the vagus nerve — a pair of nerves running between the brain and the stomach — that affected the body’s production of immune systems mediators called cytokines, that were causing the inflammation.
"The drug was stimulating the vagus nerve and turning the brake on the immune system," explains Tracey, who is now the president of the Feinstein Institute. "Once we understood that, it was a ‘eureka’ moment. We realized you didn’t need the drugs, you could just manipulate the nerve itself."
In an experiment carried out in 2012, Tracey implanted an electronic nerve stimulator onto the vagus nerve of a man suffering from acute rheumatoid arthritis, a condition that effectively disabled the patient. Eight weeks after the implant was applied, the patient had gone into clinical remission, allowing him to return to work.
This success provided Tracey with validation that this new technique may be a viable treatment for many ailments. Many researchers around the world are working on this new field of medicine, with the aim of treating other conditions like asthma and diabetes, and possibly to control neuro-psychiatric conditions such as Parkinson’s and epilepsy.
"This is quite a big step-change from pacemakers and defibrillators," explains GlaxoSmithKline’s vice president of bioelectronics research and development, Kristoffer Famm. "We’ve known for centuries that you can take different substances to have an effect on the body, but only at the end of the last century did we learn that we can exquisitely fine-tune these molecules and a whole new area of medicine opened up. We are at a similar juncture with the use of electrical impulses."